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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

American government shut down, but JPL and APL planetary missions still operating -- for now

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

01-10-2013 11:31 CDT

Topics: mission status

Last night I tweeted a link to an International Business Times story that contained false information regarding the status of the Curiosity rover. This post is an effort to remedy that. I spoke with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Veronica McGregor and the Applied Physics Laboratory's Geoff Brown this morning to get accurate information.

In brief: All of NASA's missions that are operated out of JPL and APL are continuing to operate normally today and for at least a week. At JPL, that includes: Curiosity; Opportunity; Odyssey; Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; Cassini; Dawn; Juno; Spitzer; the Voyagers; and WISE, among many others. At APL, that includes MESSENGER and New Horizons. It also includes the Deep Space Network, which JPL manages but which is subcontracted out to other entities for actual operation.

So, for people concerned about whether the Mars missions will be observing comet ISON as planned today, as it makes its closest approach to Mars: yes, that should continue, barring unforeseen problems.

How can NASA still operate these missions? Because these are not government facilities. JPL is privately run, by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and is under contract to NASA. APL is operated by Johns Hopkins University, also a contractor to NASA. As such, they have funds in the bank already to continue operating these missions for a while. Veronica told me that all missions across NASA are expected to be maintained during the shutdown, and that at JPL, people are today reporting to work as usual.

What Veronica couldn't tell me is for how long the status quo can be maintained. She said that they will probably review the status on a week-by-week basis, meaning that on Monday next week they will assess whether they can continue operating normally for the next week.

Geoff told me that, anticipating the shutdown, APL has been deferring nonessential activities in order to preserve funding and maintain operations of active missions -- "We will not receive new money so we have been saving the old money." He confirmed that there are not currently any impacts on operations, and that they'd reassess the situation in "a couple of weeks."

One thing that will change is that there will be no press releases coming out of JPL missions, and no updates to JPL's websites, because all of that requires review from civil servants at NASA Headquarters, who are now furloughed. Since the mission websites will grow increasingly stale, the website for the missions may get taken down. They are up at present, but they can't be updated. Veronica didn't know when or if that might happen. All mission Twitter feeds are going silent because of the unavailability of Headquarters oversight.

If the shutdown drags on long enough that mission operations actually are impacted, Veronica said that JPL will be able to at least communicate about its own status to report on that, without requiring that NASA Headquarters be in the loop.

(This post was updated 10 minutes after original publication with information from APL's representative)

See other posts from October 2013


Or read more blog entries about: mission status


Stan Spielbusch: 10/01/2013 06:00 CDT

I see that all of the web site is shut down. What money does it take to leave a web site up? (They DID bother putting a message on it saying that it's down due to the "shut down", so it's not like they shut off the servers). Looks like political games to me, just like the false sequester "shut downs".

Christopher Bullivant: 10/01/2013 06:49 CDT

No political games at all, really; what NASA does costs money (and there was nothing "false" about the sequester; a nearly 6% budget cut is painful when you're a woefully underfunded agency like NASA). If you noticed, that message isn't actually located at; it redirects to (as one would expect when a website is down).

Supernaut: 10/01/2013 07:09 CDT

What about LADEE? I believe they have a critical lunar orbit insertion burn pretty soon.

GOP IZ SMRT: 10/01/2013 11:12 CDT

I can speak for the mission ops at GSFC, and I would assume all other NASA centers are operating in a similar fashion. All work that is required to "secure national assets" is being completed as normal, so mission operations are still occuring for spacecraft that are on orbit, and any maneuvers required for a mission to meet requirements are being executed as planned. But all of the science being collected is presumably just sitting around and collecting dust until the people smart enough to do something with it are allowed back. Websites are being taken down (or redirected) to prevent any malicious attacks against them. If hackers were successful, then there would be no one around to fix it. So it's not the money to keep the site up that is the problems, but the money to recover it from being compromised.

Mike Loucks: 10/02/2013 02:56 CDT

LADEE is being operated by essential personnel at NASA/Ames. TCM-1 was executed Tuesday afternoon as planned, as will be the Lunar Orbit Insertion Burns that start on Sunday.

Skip Morrow: 10/03/2013 09:26 CDT

Is Curiosity still moving? This was posted three days ago, and I was hoping for an update? What *HAS* Curiosity done the last three days? Meters driven, rocks lazed, holes dug, atmospheres sniffed?

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