NASA asteroid mission Psyche delays launch of Venus probe to 2031
A Venus mission will have to wait at least three more years to launch due to problems with another interplanetary NASA venture.
A tangled web of problems led to the delay of the Psyche spacecraft‘s mission to the main asteroid beltwhich was originally scheduled to launch between August and October this year.
Psyche survived a continuation/termination assessment this year which could have resulted in the cancellation and is now expected to do so flying in October 2023. But costs and staffing issues related to Psyche’s delay have pushed back the launch of another high-profile NASA mission by at least three years, officials at NASA’s Southern California Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the agency said.
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VERITAS (“Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy”) was scheduled for launch in late 2027, but it will now launch no earlier than 2031. VERITAS will use radar to map Venus‘ surface of orbit in great detail. (Another NASA Venus mission, DAVINCI+, is still on track for a 2029 launch.)
While problems with the development of the Psyche’s flight software were cited as the main technical cause of the delay of the JPL-led mission, a independent investigation released Friday (Nov 4) wider problems found (opens in new tab) with management and staff who contributed to the problem.
“The review committee — convened at the request of NASA and JPL — found that a major factor in the delay was an imbalance between the workload and available staff at JPL,” NASA officials said in a statement. pronunciation (opens in new tab) late friday. “NASA will work closely with JPL management in the coming months to address the challenges identified in the report. The board will meet again in the spring of 2023 to review progress.”
Psyche, which will visit its metallic asteroid namesake, will still have to find money to cover an expected shortfall in development funds even after NASA releases the estimated $500 million (opens in new tab) VERITAS, NASA’s Lori Glaze warned during a news conference Friday with reporters. The agency previously noted that the limit for the Psyche mission (including launch) was $985 million, and $717 million was already spent at the end of June (opens in new tab).
“There is an increased cost to the division’s budget to support Psyche’s development,” said Glaze, NASA’s planetary science director. In addition, NASA determined that delaying VERITAS “would allow experienced JPL personnel to complete the development of strategic flagship missions further in their development,” the agency said Friday.
Meanwhile, programmatic changes are coming to Psyche. The research council identified a range of staffing issues, including (but not limited to) lack of communication due to hybrid work related to COVID-19 isolation protocols; a rapid change in management (three times in four years); and employees who cannot easily raise issues to people higher up in the mission’s command structure.
Staff shortages were associated with two Mars mission failures in the late 1990s: the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander, each of which could not reach its destination safely due to technical problems. But this time it was less of a staffing issue and more of a lack of technical oversight, JPL director Laurie Leshin said at Friday’s briefing. The pandemic caused some of these problems, Leshin added.
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Psyche managers, she said, “spent a lot more time figuring out staffing challenges, and that can lead to some issues with them also being able to exercise the technical oversight that we expect from them. So that, to me, is a really important one.” thread to pull on here It’s not that we need more [people]. It’s that we need to make sure people understand their roles and responsibilities and do it effectively.”
Leshin emphasized that the Psyche team should look at their processes to “make sure we’re doing the most valuable things,” including finding the right metrics and focusing on innovation. Lessons learned from this process, she said, will help manage other upcoming NASA missions such as: Europe Clipperready to launch to an icy moon of Jupiter in 2024.
Review chairman Tom Young, who also chaired the investigation into the two Mars bankruptcies in 1998, emphasized that staffing conditions were different between then and now. He described those two failed Mars missions as “very limited” with their cost and schedule, which increased the risk. At Psyche, he noted, associates stepped forward to say the mission wasn’t ready yet: “It takes some courage to say you’re not ready to launch yet.”
“We really haven’t recommended more middle management or managers,” Young added. “We really said we needed to have managers who had the necessary experience to run a program with the complexities and challenges of Psyche.”
NASA and JPL agreed, or agreed in spirit, with all of the board’s recommendations and have “already taken many steps” to improve processes for Psyche in the future, Leshin noted. There is new leadership in areas such as systems engineering and new processes are underway to increase collaboration. The group is also doubling “our efforts to ensure we bring in the talent we need” amid an industry-wide workforce shortage, she said, including measures such as reviewing salary compensation and mentorship opportunities.
“We are working on that challenge. We are taking on that challenge every day and we are doing well. We can hire great people and we will continue to do so,” added Leshin. Job openings are open today for anyone who wants to apply, she added.
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of “Why am I taller? (opens in new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or facebook (opens in new tab).
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