Dead in Space: Government Shutdown, NASA and Mars

marsAs the government shutdown goes into its second week, there is growing concern over how it is affecting crucial programs and services. And its certainly no secret that a number of federally-funded organizations are worried about how it will affect their long term goals. One such organization is NASA, who has seen much of its operations frozen while the US government attempts to work out its differences.

In addition to 97% of NASA’s 18,000 employees being off the job, its social media accounts and website going dark, and its television channel being shut down, activities ranging from commercial crew payouts, conferences, and awards and scholarship approvals are all being delayed as well. Luckily, certain exemptions are being made when it comes to crucial work on Mars.

NASA_mavenThese include the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter. Following two days of complete work stoppage, technicians working on the orbiter were granted an exemption and permitted to continue prepping it for launch. And not a moment too soon, seeing as how a continued shutdown would have caused the orbiter to miss its crucial launch window.

Designed to survey the Martian atmosphere while orbiting the planet, NASA hopes that MAVEN will provide some clues as to what became of the planet’s onetime atmosphere. MAVEN was been scheduled to blast off for the Red Planet on Nov.18 atop an Atlas V rocket from the Florida Space Coast until those plans were derailed by the start of the government shutdown that began at midnight, Oct. 1.

But as Prof. Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s chief scientist, stated in an interview just two days later:

We have already restarted spacecraft processing at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) today. [Today, we] determined that MAVEN meets the requirements allowing an emergency exception relative to the Anti-Deficiency Act.

Curiosity-roverAnother merciful exception to the shutdown has been the Curiosity Rover. Since contract workers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) oversee the rover’s mission, the Curiosity team is not subject to the same furloughs as other NASA employees. At JPL, the technicians and workers at the lab are employed by the California Institute of Technology, and are therefore able to keep the mission going.

However, the management at JPL and Cal Tech will continue to assess the situation on a weekly basis, and it’s possible the team may not remain completely intact in the event of a prolonged shutdown. This would be particularly detrimental for Curiosity since the Mars rover requires daily maintenance by scientists, engineers and programmers and cannot run on autopilot.

curiosity_sol-177-1As Veronica McGregor, a media relations manager at JPL, said in a recent interview:

Right now, things continue on as normal. Curiosity is one where they literally look at the data each day, sit down, create a plan, decide what science instrument is going to be used tomorrow, they write software for it and upload it. [It’s] is kind of a unique mission in that way.

Other programs running out JPL will also continue. These include the Opportunity and Odyssey rovers, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the HiRISE camera, Dawn, Juno, and Spitzer space probes, and the Voyager satellites, APL, MESSENGER, and New Horizons.  In addition, operations aboard the International Space Station will continue, but with the bare minimum of ground crew support.

cassini_spaceprobeRobotic missions that are already in operation – such as the Cassini spacecraft circling Saturn, or the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) winging its way to the moon – will have small crews making sure that they are functioning properly. However, no scientific analysis will be conducted during the shutdown period.

As the shutdown continues, updates on which programs are still in operation, which ones will need to be discontinued, and how they will be affected will continue to be made available. One can only hope the politically-inspired deadlock will not become a prolonged affair. It’s not just current programs that are being affected after all.

Consider the proposed 2030 manned mission to Mars, or the plans to tow an asteroid closer to Earth. I can’t imagine how awful it would be if they were delayed or mothballed due to budget constraints. Politics… bah!

Sources:, (2),

NASA Sends Mona Lisa to the Moon!

moonIn an effort to demonstrate how laser communications work, and perhaps just to show off a little, a team of NASA engineers shot an image of the Mona Lisa to the moon by piggybacking it on laser pulses. The transmission occurred back in mid-January, and took place between NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center here on Earth and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) some 386,000 km (240,000 miles) away. In addition to showcases how NASA regularly communicated with the orbiter, it also presented a possible means of communicating with a future moon colony.

On any given day, scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center use what is known as the Next Generation Satellite Laser Ranging Station to track the LRO’s position. Expanding on this, the staff reprogrammed the laser to send the massive work of art in the form of as massive JPEG file. This involved chopping the picture into a 152×200 pixel array, with each pixel assigned a gray-scale value and beamed up one at a time. All told, the process took some time, with image transmission speed clocked at about 300 bits per second.

mona_lisa_laserIt then fell to LOLO, the LRO’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter, to put the Mona Lisa back together based on the arrival times of the pixel data. All the while, LOLA continued to pursue its primary mission of mapping out the lunar terrain. The image was then beamed back to Earth via the LRO’s radio telemetry system, with only minor errors caused by turbulence in the atmosphere.

MIT’s David Smith, head of LOLA, had this to say about the event in a release:

“This is the first time anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances. In the near future, this type of simple laser communication might serve as a backup for the radio communication that satellites use. In the more distant future, it may allow communication at higher data rates than present radio links can provide.”

According to NASA, the success of the demonstration could pave the way for lasers to be used for satellite communication, particularly with its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission, which is set to launch this year.

No telling how DaVinci might react to the news of his classic portrait breaching the heavens and being beamed into space. However, given the man’s obvious love of his work and fascination with all things metaphysical and scientific, I think he would have been very happy. Perhaps if his enigmatic masterpiece were to be send into the cosmos as part of the search for extra-terrestrial life too. But that’s another day and another mission!

And be sure to check out the video below from the Goddard SFC explaining the process, courtesy of NASA: