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NASA has plans to launch the Lucy asteroid mission this year, to be more accurate in mid-October. This mission survived challenges caused by the covid outbreak, but there is one more task to overcome: the threat of a federal government shutdown.

According to Space News the Lucy spacecraft is set to launch in the predawn hours of October 16th on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA has chosen this period to launch its mission as a part of the Discovery program, because a window that is open only through Nov. 7 to fly a complex trajectory to visit several Trojan asteroids leading and trailing Jupiter in that planet’s orbit around the sun.

During the briefing session on September 28th officials assured that all preparations for the launch remain on schedule. The spacecraft will soon be encapsulated within its payload fairing and transported to the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41, where it will be installed atop its Atlas 5 rocket.

“Things are moving really quickly,” Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, Lucy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said at the briefing.

However, actions — or, more accurately, a lack of action — 1,200 kilometers from the launch site could bring those activities to a sudden halt. The new fiscal year will begin Oct. 1 and Congress has yet to pass a temporary spending bill, known as a continuing resolution or CR, to fund the government until it passes full-year appropriations bills. Some Republican members oppose an increase in the debt limit, required to avoid a government default, that would also be included in the CR.

The worst case scenario can be if Congress doesn’t pass a CR by October 1st so as a result the federal government would shut down for the first time since a five-week shutdown in December 2018 and January 2019.

NASA has an action plan for a possible shutdown, last updated June 9. It states that operations of the International Space Station and other spacecraft would continue in the event of a shutdown. “However, if a satellite mission has not yet been launched, unfunded work will generally be suspended on that project,” the document states.

Any halt to launch preparations could jeopardize its ability to launch during its three-week window, particularly if it faces other technical or weather delays. “We’re keeping a really close eye on what’s going on, and hoping that we can get a continuing resolution to continue operating,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said when asked about the potential impact of a shutdown.

Glaze didn’t initially mention if Lucy had received an exception to the shutdown rules, allowing it to continue launch preparations. But later Glaze said that the project is seeking the status of exception. “The request process is underway. It’s not completed yet,” she said. “We’re working on that and keeping a really, really close eye on what’s going on with Congress and the budget.”

The complex trajectory leaves the mission with no choice, and they are forced to launch it during that narrow window. After its launch, it will perform flybys of the Earth in October 2022 and December 2024 before flying past an asteroid in the main belt in April 2025. It will then go past several objects in one cluster of Trojan asteroids between August 2027 and November 2028. After another Earth flyby in December 2030, it will fly by two objects in the other Trojan cluster in March 2033.

This trajectory is unique and if the launch fails NASA couldn’t rearrange everything in the shortest time and set the date of the other launch. “Finding a trajectory that actually will allow us to visit all these types of objects has been a real chore,” said Hal Levison, principal investigator for the mission at the Southwest Research Institute. “This is an amazing trajectory that will not be possible again in the near future.”

In the best scenario Lucy mission can help scientists like Levison to better understand the early history of the solar system. Some of those objects may be what he calls “fossils of planetary formation”; the mission is named Lucy after the fossilized skeleton of a human ancestor discovered nearly a half-century ago.

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