This is a rare moment of sanity and clarity from the powers-that-be. Despite the current government shutdown, NASA's MAVEN mission—slated for a November launch—has been allowed to go ahead.
Fears had been building that the government shutdown would see the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) launch postponed, but the project has been "excepted" from the current blackout. Bruce Jakosky, the Principal Investigator for the MAVEN mission, explained:
I learned this morning that NASA has analyzed the MAVEN mission relative to the Anti-Deficiency Act and determined that it meets the requirements allowing an emergency exception.
MAVEN is required as a communications relay in order to be assured of continued communications with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers. The rovers are presently supported by Mars Odyssey launched in 2001 and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched in 2005. Launching MAVEN in 2013 protects the existing assets that are at Mars today.
A delay in the launch date by more than a week past the end of the nominal launch period, or a delay of launch to 2016, would require additional fuel to get into orbit. This would have precluded having sufficient fuel for MAVEN to carry out its science mission and to operate as a relay for any significant time. Our nominal launch period runs from 18 November through 7 December, and we can launch as late as about 15 December without a significant impact on our combined science and relay activities. There is no NASA relay orbiter planned post-MAVEN.
Although the exception for MAVEN is not being done for science reasons, the science of MAVEN clearly will benefit from this action. Launching in 2013 allows us to observe at a good time in the eleven-year solar cycle.
We have already restarted spacecraft processing at Kennedy Space Center, working toward being ready to launch on Nov. 18. We will continue to work over the next couple of days to identify any changes in our schedule or plans that are necessary to stay on track.
The MAVEN mission will see a probe orbit Mars and study its atmosphere. The plan is to determine what caused the Martian atmosphere—and water—to be lost to space. Fortunately, it looks like we'll still get those answers sooner rather than later. [Planetary]
Image by NASA / Kim Shiflett