Update: The MAVEN project has been given exception status from the shutdown so they don't miss their launch date, according to a tweet from NASA scientist Jared Espley.
The chance to launch a rocket to Mars comes around once every 26 months.
If the government shutdown lasts longer than a few days, it's very possible that NASA could miss the coming launch window, and end up two years behind their currently on-time and on-budget Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft, also known as MAVEN, project.
The government shutdown means that NASA has ceased all work on any un-launched projects [PDF]. MAVEN was set to launch sometime between Nov. 18 and Dec. 7 — the only open launch window for more than two years.
Currently, there is "no end in sight" to the shutdown.
The project, a collaboration between NASA and the University of Colorado, cost $671 million.
MAVEN will explore Mars' upper atmosphere, including interactions with the sun and charged particles blown out by the sun known as solar wind. While the NASA site about MAVEN has shut down, the University of Colorado's is still open .
Maven "is going to tell us why the atmosphere changed over time," lead scientist Bruce Jakosky, of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, told Florida Today. "We think that the surface was conducive to supporting life four billion years ago, and not today, and we’re trying to learn why."
Depending on how much work they miss out on while the government is closed, there's a real possibility that they will miss their window. They still have "pre-launch" testing, cleaning, packing, and checking to do on the craft and the satellite before the official launch.
The team tweeted on Monday that they have a few days of buffer room on the project:
We'll turn #MAVEN back on when told that we can. We have some margin days built in & are absolutely committed to launch at this opportunity.— NASA's MAVEN Mission (@MAVEN2Mars) October 1, 2013
Also, contractors can continue to work on the project, as long as their contracts have money and they aren't working at a government facility.
The actual MAVEN hardware is currently at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and has been put into a "known, stable, safe state." For now, the team is ready and waiting to turn her back on.
Her launch rocket, the Atlas V rocket, should currently be at Florida's Port Canaveral. They were supposed to be moved in late September, to the nearby Space Launch Complex 41 for stacking, and the protective payload fairing will arrive from its manufacturing location in Harlingen, Texas. We aren't sure if any of those events have happened.
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