Mars orbiter MAVEN will make its launch window

MAVEN is back on line

The federal government shutdown this week has a lot of scientists scratching their heads and packing their bags. All “non-essential” elements of the federal government, i.e. things without guns attached and people with high IQs, get the axe. It is a bit like congress holding the nation hostage while whining about themselves. Oh, and congress still gets paid while the CDC isn’t allowed to keep track of the coming flu season.

In somewhat of a surprise move, the NASA Mars orbiter mission, MAVEN, has been deemed “essential” and will actually get to make its launch window. But its not just a case of the grinch’s heart growing three sizes, spurred on by the magic of xmas. The status of the MAVEN project was switched to essential due to an exception in a law from 1884 called the Antideficiency Act.

The act’s main provisions are actually in place to prevent government institutions or employees from spending money that has not been appropriated to them through legislation. Federal institutions and workers aren’t allowed to accept voluntary services or spend any non-appropriated money. . .

. . .except in cases of emergency involving the safety of human life or the protection of property. 31 U.S.C. § 1342.

The Mars Oddyssey and Mars Reconaissance Orbiter are currently serving as necessary communication relays for Curiosity and Opportunity rovers on the planet surface. Launching MAVEN on time (a three week window from November 18 to December 7) ensures that communication with the rovers will continue unabated. Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator for MAVEN at the University of Colorado Boulder, points out that the decision was made for non-science reasons, but the reactivation should allow for MAVEN to meet all of its scientific objectives as well as act as a rover relay.

MAVEN, for Mars Atmostphere and Volatile EvolutioN, has primary scientific objectives are to sample and measure the Martian atmosphere, uncovering clues as to the current and past rates of atmosphere loss and what this has meant and will mean for the planet. The orbiter will use a highly elliptical orbit to make measurements ranging from direct sampling of the Mars atmosphere when MAVEN dips into the upper atmosphere as close as 125 km (77 mi) to the red plant, to global ultraviolet imaging from 6000 km (3278 mi) at apogee. The three sensor suites will include the Particles and Fields package, measuring particles and electromagnetic fields mostly associated with solar wind, the Remote Sensing Package for imaging the upper atmosphere, and the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer for spectroscopy of atmospheric samples (it is not clear from the mission facts sheet whether the spectrometer package might provide any insight into the ongoing methane measurement discrepancies discrepancies reported by Chris Webster et al). These instruments should gather data that will point to the role of solar radiation in atmosphere loss on Mars, how fast it is happening today and what this might have meant for ancient Mars.

I hate to think that the state of U.S. Congress will become the new norm, but does this point to a mission operations strategy that could lessen vulnerability to government shutdowns? Incorporating some sort of reliance on future missions into probes like the Mars rovers prevents those future missions from being postponed and ultimately cancelled might be tempting, but I’d hate to see mission design robustness sacrificed to account for the decidedly un-robust nature of U.S. lawmakers.

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