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Government Shutdown Threatens Future NASA Missions

NASA's temporary shutdown may endanger future missions more than it does astronauts on the space station

2 min read
Government Shutdown Threatens Future NASA Missions

NASA celebrated its 55th anniversary by shuttering websites and furloughing most of its 18 000 employees as a U.S. government shutdown took effect on 1 October. But future space exploration missions stand to suffer the most from the shutdown's impact.

The U.S. space agency will likely halt work on satellites or spacecraft that have yet to launch, according to NASA's shutdown plans detailed by Phil Plait, creator of Bad Astronomy, points out that the shutdown could delay the upcoming Mars MAVEN mission beyond its scheduled launch on 18 November and possibly push the mission back until 2016—the next time when Mars and the Earth will be aligned in the best positions for the spacecraft to reach the red planet.

A skeleton crew of mission controllers in Houston continues to support the six members of the International Space Station, including two NASA astronauts, an Italian astronaut, and three Russian cosmonauts. But an astounding 97 percent of NASA's approximately 18 134 employees won't work during the government shutdown.

Still, NASA's shutdown plan includes measures to maintain existing satellites and spacecraft such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the recently-launched LADEE lunar probe, even if the agency will put scientific measurements and photo collection on hold.

"The extent of support necessary and the time needed to safely cease project activities will depend on whether any of the activities are of a hazardous nature (e.g., parts of the satellite may need to be cooled)," according to NASA's shutdown plan.

Perhaps the most public sign of NASA's shutdown is the sudden silence from NASA's many active social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. NASA TV has gone offline, and visitors to the website are greeted with the message: "Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available."

Not every space mission has gone into immediate shutdown mode. NASA missions operated by private contractors—such as the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory  and Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory—will continue normal operations for the rest of the week, according to a Planetary Society blog post.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory covers a wide range of missions such as the Mars Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Cassini spacecraft exploring the moons of Saturn, the Dawn spacecraft sent to investigate two asteroids, the Voyager 1 spacecraft roaming interstellar space and more. The Applied Physics Laboratory covers the MESSENGER mission orbiting Mercury and the New Horizons spacecraft headed for Pluto.

But JPL and APL spokespersons told the Planetary Society that their facilities would still have to conserve existing funding to keep operating beyond the shutdown—taking it week by week until the U.S. Congress can pass a spending bill that can put NASA back on course.

Photo: NASA

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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