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Preparations for the launch of NASA's Maven orbiter to Mars have resumed after the $650 million mission was granted an exception from the federal government's shutdown, in order to protect U.S. property. In this case, the property is sitting on Mars, according to Maven's principal investigator.
"Basically, we're back, full speed," University of Colorado planetary scientist Bruce Jakosky told NBC News on Thursday.
Workers who had been furloughed or locked out are back at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to resume preparations for a Nov. 18 launch. "We've been able to get back into the facilities where the spacecraft and development team have been working," Jakosky said.
About 250 people are typically involved in the current phase of the mission, but Jakosky couldn't say how many furloughed workers have been called back.
The Maven mission — also known as Mars Atmospheric and Volatile Evolution — is designed to study Mars' upper atmosphere and unlock the mysteries surrounding the Red Planet's loss of water reserves. When the shutdown began on Oct. 1, Jakosky worried that Maven could miss this year's launch opportunity, which extends from Nov. 18 to mid-December. If that happened, the next opportunity wouldn't come along until 2016, due to orbital mechanics.
"If this had gone on into next week, it would have jeopardized the Nov. 18 launch day," Jakosky said.
Relay role considered crucial
Fortunately for Jakosky and his team, NASA Headquarters in Washington determined that Maven's preparations should go ahead on an emergency basis — not because of its scientific objectives, but because of its expected role as a communications relay satellite for the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers on Mars.
"Both Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey have been acting as communication relays, but they've passed their design lifetime," Jakosky explained. "Maven carries communication equipment to take over that job as necessary. Getting us launched at this opportunity is a way to preserve that ability to communicate."
The Maven team includes NASA personnel at Kennedy Space Center, Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory — as well as contractors at Lockheed Martin and other companies, and non-NASA scientists like Jakosky.
Spacecraft operations in support of missions that are under way, ranging from the International Space Station to the Mars Curiosity mission, have continued with skeleton crews despite the shutdown. For the most part, preparations for missions yet to be launched have been suspended. (The James Webb Space Telescope is an exception, because some of its instruments are undergoing crucial cryogenic tests.)
Jakosky said he was relieved to see Maven back on track, but his relief was tempered by concern about others affected by the shutdown. "I'll be honest, there's a little bit of a 'bittersweet victory' thing," he told NBC News, "because we know there are still 800,000 people out there who are still furloughed."
More about Maven:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.