If ET wants to phone home, this is not the week to do it. NASA’s phone lines are down, as is its website and many twitter feeds. All have been silenced by the government shutdown, whose far-reaching consequences are now stretching into space.
The shutdown began on Tuesday, after Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives failed to come to an agreement over the federal budget. Most of the government’s nonessential services have ground to a halt, and among the hardest-hit agencies is NASA.
One of the few lines of communication that remains open is with the International Space Station, where six astronauts, including two from NASA, are still working in orbit. A skeleton crew remains at Mission Control in Houston, talking to the astronauts and trying to keep them occupied.
“We just have some new people up on the space station getting used to the environment and I think it’s good for them to know they’ve got full support from the ground,” Mike Trenchard, a contractor working at Mission Control, told NPR member station KUHF.
NASA’s other space missions are all unmanned. Many are run by outside institutions, and so for the moment, they’re unaffected. Curiosity is still driving across Mars, thanks to researchers employed by the California Institute of Technology and other universities. Probes to study Pluto, Mercury and the Sun are all also up and running. And then there’s the Hubble Space Telescope.
“The Hubble is open for business and doing science as we speak,” says Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which runs the Hubble for NASA. The Institute has enough cash on hand to keep Hubble going for a few more weeks, provided nothing goes wrong. But in space, things can go wrong. Stray radiation can strike at any time.
“One of these very high energy particles from the sun can cause a spike in the electronics,” Mountain says. It happens several times a year, and when it does Hubble goes into a protective, safe mode.
“It swings the space craft away from the sun and closes down all the instruments and just sits there,” he says.
The only way for the Hubble to resume observations is for ground control to reboot it. But ground control is run by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which is currently closed. So if something happens, Hubble will just have to sit there, in orbit, until the shutdown ends.
The shutdown is hardest is for space probes preparing to leave the planet. Bruce Jakosky is in charge of a mission to Mars called MAVEN. The $671 million orbiter will study Mars’s atmosphere. This mission can only launch when the planets Mars and Earth are aligned.
“We have a 20-day period in which we can launch, this time around, and that runs from Nov. 18 to Dec. 7,” Jakosky says.
Researchers were working feverishly at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, getting MAVEN ready to go. But yesterday the shutdown started. They had to turn everything off and leave the building. Now nobody can get in. The only way Jakosky can see his spacecraft is via a webcam they set up before they left.
“We’re anxious to get back to work, we’re anxious to get back on track,” he says. “After about a week I’m going to get really concerned.”
If the shutdown runs longer, they could miss their launch window. The next one won’t come until 2016.