NASA postpones Venus mission due to problems at JPL
NASA’s JPL struggles with budget, staffing and poor communication issues, forcing the space agency to postpone a much-anticipated mission to Venus.
At the annual meeting of the Venus Exploration Analysis Group on Monday, NASA’s Planetary Science Division director Lori Glaze described the mission delay as “the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do, probably in my entire life.” However, Glaze said in addressing challenges highlighted by an independent review board, “there were no good options.”
NASA recently shared the results of an independent assessment committee composed to decide the fate of the Psyche mission. The mission had missed its first launch window in August 2022 due to development delays, but is now targeting an October 2023 launch date to study a metal-rich asteroid. However, the report prepared by the evaluation committee revealed issues that went far beyond those leading to the delay of Psyche.
The Independent Review Board noted that there were not enough staff members working on Psyche to allow for its completion on time, in addition to communication difficulties and staff members working remotely due to the covid-19 pandemic. The board also noted an unprecedented workload and an imbalance between workload and available resources at JPL.
As a result of these issues, NASA decided to delay the launch of its TRUTH (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy) probe for at least three years. “This is a bitter, bitter blow to the VERITAS team in particular and the Venus community in general,” planetary scientist Paul Byrne told Gizmodo in an email. “I am very disappointed.”
VERITAS was originally scheduled to launch in 2027 on a mission to map the surface of Venus and study its atmosphere. The delay to 2031 is intended to allow personnel working on VERITAS to contribute to missions further in their development and free up additional resources for the Psyche mission.
Glaze also mentioned the impact of Covid-19 and the ongoing inflation crisis, saying NASA did not receive additional funding to offset the financial effects of the past two years. “Just wanted to note that we are currently on a lower budget than we expected,” Glaze said.
To which she added: “And so every single project that gets ready to build hardware says we need to have the money that’s in our budgets in that year. We need it now so we can start these early tenders. And so we try to meet that as well.”
Members of the Venus science community were frustrated with the decision, especially given how long they had to wait for a NASA mission to advance Venus science. NASA’s last mission to Venus, Magellan, arrived on the planet in 1989 and ended science operations in 1994. Since then, NASA has not dispatched a specialized Venus mission. But to the delight of scientists studying Venus, NASA green-lit two Venus missions, VERITAS and DAVINCI, in June last year. DAVINCI is still on track to launch in 2029, but VERITAS wasn’t so lucky.
“A three-year delay isn’t much in the schedule of NASA’s frequency of Venus missions, but the data VERITAS will return is much needed – so having to wait even longer, especially through no fault of the VERITAS team – feels very unfair ‘ said Byrne.
VERITAS team members who attended the meeting expressed frustration at having to bear the brunt of budget and staffing issues when they are under budget or have staffing issues. “I recognize that you are not responsible for the things that will be judged, you have no control over that,” Glaze said, addressing a member of the VERITAS team. “I can commit to you and your team to be transparent and work with you.”
The VERITAS science team will be reassigned to other missions before resuming work on the Venus mission later. “We’re going to provide the scientific team with some level of support throughout the procedure to keep meeting, keep talking, keep thinking about how we move forward in the time frame of 2024,” Glaze said.
There will also be an assessment of the progress made at JPL in resolving the issues identified in the report, as well as progress made for two upcoming missions, NASA’s Europa Clipper and NISAR, which are scheduled for launch in 2024. “If they aren’t adequately staffed and they miss their launch window, the funding implications of that would be, I’d go so far as to say, almost catastrophic,” Glaze said.
The Psyche mission is designed to reveal the origin of a 140-mile-wide (226 kilometers) asteroid, but the delay has already revealed more than NASA expected. “I had heard that there were serious staffing issues at JPL, but that’s true in many places because of the covid-19 pandemic and other issues,” Byrne said. “But I had no idea how bad it was.”
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