The U.S. government shutdown had hindered most Earth-bound NASA employees from working. On Mars, however, the Curiosity rover is going strong.
Since contract workers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) oversee the mission which touched down on the Red Planet in August 2012, the Curiosity team is not subject to the same furloughs as other NASA employees. Veronica McGregor, a media relations manager at JPL, said the California Institute of Technology technically employs herself and others at the lab.
This would be particularly detrimental for Curiosity. Unlike some space probes that run mostly on autopilot, the Mars rover requires daily maintenance by scientists, engineers and programmers to decide how best to proceed with the mission.
“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,” McGregor said. “[It's] is kind of a unique mission in that way.”
Teams work almost around the clock to keep the bot functioning.
It appears the government shutdown did not affect NASA’s next Mars probe either. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution orbiter, or Maven, is on schedule to launch on Nov. 18, which is significant because there is a small window of opportunity to send a craft to Mars.
“We wait until basically Earth is lapping Mars on the inside,” McGregor said. “Every other year, Earth and Mars are on complete opposite sides of the sun, and the amount of fuel that would be necessary would be prohibitive.”
If the mission were to be delayed a significant amount of time, it would have to wait about two years for another opportunity to launch.
Aside from Mission Control which is supporting astronauts currently in space, most of NASA’s staff was furloughed on the 55th anniversary of the day the agency became operational.