The federal funding impasse is even felt even up on Mars, more than 220 million miles from Washington D.C.
NASA's $2.5 billion Curiosity rover is continuing its 100-yards-a-day march toward Mount Sharp -- but it will likely skip scientific measurements and photography along the way, said space scientist David Blake, who created a key tool aboard the rover and is one of NASA Ames' few scientists still working at the Mountain View lab.
"Curiosity is safe and moving forward, but we will probably not make any measurements with the arm -- things that are science-intensive and require staffing," said Blake, senior scientist at NASA Ames in Moffett Field, near Mountain View.
"We won't miss much early on, but if it goes on for a long time, we will be less and less able to do stuff," said Blake, from a science conference at the California Institute of Technology. Blake designed the instrument called CheMin, short for chemistry and mineralogy, which analyzes soil and rock samples.
An estimated 97 percent of NASA employees are furloughed.
Every day in the rover's two-year journey is precious, he said, and Curiosity hasn't lost any ground on its main goal: reaching Mt. Sharp, a Martian mountain higher than Mt. Whitney. It is traveling there to search for carbon-based building blocks of life or chemical "biosignatures" in rocks that would suggest that life may have once thrived on the Red Planet.
But without staff scientists to guide it, it is unlikely that its robotic arm will scoop and dig the iron-laden sands to test in its mini-laboratories, or take measurements of the terrain, he said.
And the rover probably won't stop and snap photographs along the way, he added.
There were conflicting reports on Tuesday about Curiosity's fate after Congress failed to come up with a budget agreement.
Initially, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said the rover would be put in a "protective mode for the security of the rover." This was countered by a statement by the Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which operates Curiosity, that because JPL employees are contractors, not direct employees, it would continue to operate the rover.
"Right now, it is a driving job, not a science job," said Blake.
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.