Emily LakdawallaOct 01, 2013

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

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)

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