Mars rover communications suffer in shutdown

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Curiosity, we may have a problem.

Because Congress failed to pass a budget or an emergency spending bill, the federal government has been in shutdown mode since Oct. 1. This forced NASA to furlough 97 percent of its employees and cease most of its operations.

This means, in part, that the public is now being kept pretty much in the dark as to the status of the Mars explorer Curiosity and other NASA operations. There have been no news releases coming out for current missions and no updates of most NASA websites. Facebook posts and Twitter feeds have also gone silent.

All of these communications require review from civil servants at NASA headquarters, who are now furloughed.

So how does the shutdown affect Curiosity? The explorer is operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which also operates Opportunity, Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Cassini, Dawn, Juno, Spitzer, Voyager 1 and 2, WISE and many others. JPL also manages the Deep Space Network, the ground- and space-based system used to communicate with these spacecraft.

JPL is not a government facility. It is privately run by the California Institute of Technology and is under contract to NASA.

JPL already has some funds in the bank for the operation of these missions and can use these funds to continue operations for a while. Although JPL is not receiving any new money, as of Oct. 4 all NASA missions that are operated out of JPL were continuing to operate normally.

The question now is, How long can JPL maintain the status quo?

It appears that JPL will probably review the status on a week-by-week basis. This means that each Monday they will assess whether they can continue operating normally for the next week. If the shutdown drags on long enough, decisions will have to be made on which missions to continue with normal operations and which will go into partial operations.

Right now, all things continue as normal for Curiosity. But as funds become depleted, it is possible that the operations team may not remain completely intact.

This would be particularly detrimental for Curiosity, as its mission is science-driven. Scientists look at the data each day and decide what Curiosity will do the next day. Engineers and programmers then decide how to implement these operations and upload the appropriate software to Curiosity. The team works almost around the clock to keep Curiosity functioning.

An even bigger scare for planetary scientists was the stoppage of launch preparations for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution orbiter. All NASA projects that are not off the ground were placed on hold; MAVEN was not off the ground when the shutdown started, so funding for its preparation and launch was not in the bank. Therefore, on Oct. 1 the launch preparation was frozen.

This was a big problem for the $650 million mission, because a long delay would cause MAVEN to miss its launch window between Nov. 18 and Dec. 15. This window is created by the positions of the Earth and Mars, and the next window, when Earth and Mars are once again in the proper alignment, is not until early 2016.

But those concerns are now gone.

NASA has determined that MAVEN qualifies for an emergency exception because it is required as a communications relay to assure continued communications with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers. MAVEN will provide a communication link that will protect the existing assets that are already on Mars today, and there are no other new relay orbiters planned that could fulfill this role.

Therefore, preparations for a Nov. 18 launch of MAVEN were restarted on Oct. 3. Adjustments in the schedule will still make a Nov. 18 launch possible. The probe should arrive at Mars in September 2014 and study the upper atmosphere of Mars with its eight science instruments for one Earth year.

So once again, hold on, Curiosity. Federal funding is on the way — we hope.

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