Amid all the doubt and uncertainty surrounding the federal government shutdown, there’s at least one piece of good news this week: NASA’s plans to send a probe to Mars on November 18th are figuratively cleared for liftoff. Originally thought to be sidelined following news of NASA’s budget freeze, the $650 million Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution orbiter (MAVEN) mission is on track after all, according to its principal investigator Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado.
If Maven had been sidelined, it could have meant postponing the entire mission until early 2016, when Earth and Mars will once again be in the proper alignment. The mission is tasked with investigating how the carbon-dioxide-heavy atmosphere of Mars has changed over time, and what those changes say about the planet’s ability to support life. Despite NASA furloughing 97 percent of its workforce, it has determined that the Maven mission qualifies as an emergency given its importance as a communications relay point between Earth and the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers on the red planet.