Nasa shutdown might delay Mars probe launch by 3 years

2 October 2013
By Tereza Pultarova
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Only 600 out of 18,000 Nasa employees has stayed at work as NASA became the institution most affected by the US budget crisis

Only 600 out of 18,000 Nasa employees has stayed at work as NASA became the institution most affected by the US budget crisis

Only three per cent of Nasa staff working on critical ISS support are staying at work while the US budget crisis threatens to delay scheduled launch of a new Martian probe by three years.

97 per cent of Nasa’s 18,000 employees have been forced to take unpaid leave yesterday, about the time when the agency was to celebrate its 55 birthday, making it the government body most affected by the current American budget crisis.

According to information available, only NASA’s JPL Centre, responsible for the Curiosity mission, remains partially opened, due to the fact is partly funded by the California Institute of Technology.

Those employees of the Johnson Space Centre, whose work is critical for maintaining the operations at the International Space Station, have been kept at work, while all the rest has been furloughed.

“I have an office full of people who can't go to work needing assignments to keep them busy,” said a source familiar with the situation who works for a contractor company of Nasa.

Moreover, if the budget crisis is not resolved in due time, prolonging the time Nasa is reduced to mere essentials, preparations for the launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) spacecraft might be disrupted.

“A shutdown could delay the pre-launch processing currently under way with a possible impact to the scheduled 18 November launch date,” Dwayne Brown, Nasa’s senior public affairs officer, told The Planetary Society.

Even though the launch window covers several weeks, if missed, it would result in Maven being rescheduled for no earlier than 2016, due to the orbital positions of Earth and Mars, which have critical impact on the flight duration, cost and trajectory.

Maven is the second mission selected for Nasa's Mars Scout program, an initiative for smaller, low-cost missions led by a principal investigator. The probe is designed to carry out critical measurements of the Martian atmosphere to help understand dramatic climate change on the red planet over its history.

As all the communications channels of Nasa, including its website and social media channels have been closed down, the agency won’t be sharing warnings about potentially hazardous comets and asteroids approaching the Earth via Twitter.

However, the agency reassured its partnering institutions, astronomers and observatories will still keep an eye on the sky.

According to the Astronomy Magazine, employees of Nasa centres had to empty all the liquid nitrogen tanks at the sites before the shutdown and many of them were forced to discontinue ongoing projects losing most of the data.

“There were computations that take four weeks to run, and they were halfway through, and we just had to stop them,” an unnamed source said to the Astronomy Magazine. “Even if we’re only shut down for a few days, some projects lost weeks of work. When every last computer was shut off, there was a deafening silence.”

NASA’s websites, usually providing abundant information and education resources have been shut down too.

“If the pages were accessible,” said our source, “IT security would have to be at work to monitor for hacking. In order to fully comply with the federal government, all non-critical staff has to be gone, and the safest thing for the websites is to shut them down too,” the source explained

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