97% of NASA employees have been furloughed as a result of the partial federal government shutdown. A prolonged shutdown could cause a launch delay for the MAVEN mission to Mars (Nov. 18 – Dec. 7 launch window). Other essentials will continue -including International Space Station operation and control. Chinese Tiangong mini-space-station is due to de-orbit sometime soon but China will replace it with a larger facility. The BIG news is that Chinese space officials are now saying they would entertain astronauts of other nationalities that complete their training program for their space station! Mercury very low in the west at sunset but Venus and Saturn are much easier targets all week 30 minutes after sunset.
October 7, 2013
[Dave Heller] The partial government shutdown is putting the brakes on almost all NASA operations. Let's learn more with Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute. Derrick, what's in jeopardy in the short run?
[Derrick Pitts] In the short run, the major problem are those space missons that are online for nearby launch. And the primary one that there is some minor concern about at this point is what's called the MAVEN mission. And MAVEN mission is a mission to Mars that's a Mars orbiter that will look down at Mars and try to figure out what happened to the early water that was on Mars, particularly looking at the Martian atmosphere for clues about that water.
I understand that the dates were selected with orbits in mind.
Indeed they were. MAVEN is scheduled right now to launch on November 18, and there's about a three-week window for that launch. So they do have until December 7 at the latest to get that mission launched. Now that's a pretty big launch window. But when you look at it another way, that turns out to be pretty narrow. And that is that the Earth and Mars only line up for these Mars missions with the least amount of expense going into the fuel and so on and so forth, that only happens once every 26 months. So if the launch window is missed after December 7 and we have to wait 26 months for the planets to line up properly again before this mission can be launched. So that'll take it out to 2016. If we also have to postpone continuing preparation of the satellite beyond two or three weeks, then the problem becomes that if we have to use overtime to make up for the work that's being done in preparation for the November 18 launch, then that cost is really well beyond what NASA has available in funding to pay for this. And right now, the MAVEN mission is on time and under budget — that's a great thing. But if shutdown continues too long, it'll start to cost real money.
Bruce Jakosky, professor of planetary sciences at the University of Colorado and principal investigator for NASA’s next Mars-bound spacecraft, stands next to the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. MAVEN is targeted to launch from nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Complex 41 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on in late 2013. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
What aspects of NASA operations are still running, despite the 97% furlough rate?
Those 3% that are still working are working on the critical missions of NASA, the life-sustaining missions of NASA, if you will. So International Space Station operation monitoring all sorts of things are still going on. And all of the other current space missions that are operating — the New Horizons mission out to Pluto, all the missions that are orbiting Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and others — those that are currently operational, all of those are operating as well as Deep Space Network is operating. However, they are operating with minimal crew. But all of NASA's outreach programs, and any of its interactive programs with public — so for example, the Twitter feeds and all of those things — those are all closed down.
Turns out there are no reports of a government shutdown in China, and it seems that country is looking for a few good American astronauts.
Yes, it's a really interesting development that's happening in China. First of all, China is now looking towards de-orbiting its current space station, Tiangong, sometime soon with the anticipation of adding a larger space station by 2020 or so. But they're also looking to open up their astronaut pool. As we know, China's foray into space station-like missions has been taking place over the past five years or so, and of course they've been using Chinese astronauts. But now they announce that they're looking to open that pool to an international group of astronauts perhaps. We know that they've already been working with the Russians and they've been working with the French, so that's one way to internationalize their astronaut core, but who knows? They may even introduce astronauts from other countries besides. And so this would turn out then that maybe we have two International Space Stations? One that has one set of partnerships, another that has a another set of partnerships.
But interesting that there are these potential two parallel tracks; wouldn't China also consider joining ISS?
Well you know, that's not entirely impossible. There have been talks conducted between the United States and China along space lines. And in fact, recently, the NASA administrator Charlie Baldin was given permission to actually talk with the Chinese space agency about what things are happening in the future and possible alignments, if we can say? Maybe not necessarily partnerships yet, but at least opening the door to discussions about how they might consider the possibility of working together in the future.
In this image provided by NASA Friday Aug. 9, 2013 the International Space Station's Canadarm2 grapples the unpiloted Japanese "Kounotori" Transfer Vehicle-4 as it approaches the station, and will attach it to the Earth-facing port of the station's Harmony node. The transfer vehicle is delivering 3.6 tons of science experiments, equipment and supplies to the orbiting complex. Earth's horizon and the blackness of space provide the backdrop for the scene. (AP Photo/NASA)
Wouldn't it be ironic if international negotiations preceded a faster track than how business is conducted in our own Capitol?
[Laughs] I think there's every possibility that that could go along. In fact, one of the long-hidden secrets about the American space program going back in history is that the Americans and the Russians worked together on many space exploration programs while it was deeply buried under Cold War politics and many other things. So for a long, long time, before the first International Space Station operations began with space station here so on and so forth, Americans and Russians were working together.
Derrick, we have a moment left. What's available to be seen in the night sky this week?
We can actually go out tonight and find Saturn, the moon, Venus and Mercury, low on the western horizon about 45 minutes after sunset. Venus would be easy to identify because it's brilliant white. Saturn will be a little bit to the right, but between the two will be the moon. So if you start with Venus, move to the right you'll see a thin crescent moon about the same distance away from the moon going further to the right, you'll find Saturn. And down low, right smack on the horizon is Mercury. If we give it a week or so, Mercury will come up higher in the evening sky. If we go around to the morning sky before sunrise, we find Jupiter rising near midnight now is high in the southeastern sky by sunrise. But Mars comes along right behind it, about three hours later, so predawn sky you have Jupiter and Mars; evening sky: Saturn and Venus.