NASA delays Venus mission due to problems at JPL
NASA’s JPL has been struggling with budget, staffing and poor communication issues, forcing the space agency to delay a long-awaited mission to Venus.
During the annual meeting 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 life.” However, Glaze said that in trying to meet the challenges identified by the independent review board, “there were no good options”.
NASA recently shared the results of the independent audit committee that was formed to decide the fate of Psyche’s mission. The mission missed its initial launch window of August 2022 due to development delays, but is now targeting an October 2023 launch date to study the metal-rich asteroid. However, a report compiled by the audit committee found problems that went far beyond those that led to the disposal of Psyche.
The independent review board noted that there were not enough staff members working on Psycha to enable it to be completed on time, in addition to communication problems and staff members working remotely due to the covid-19 pandemic. The board also noted the unprecedented workload and 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, radioscience, 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 more broadly,” planetary scientist Paul Byrne told Gizmodo in an email. “I’m very disappointed.”
VERITAS was originally scheduled to launch in 2027 on a mission to map the surface of Venus and study its atmosphere. Its delay until 2031 is intended to allow VERITAS personnel to contribute to missions further in development and to free up additional resources for the Psyche mission.
Glaze also cited the impact of Covid-19 and the ongoing inflation crisis, saying NASA has not received any additional funding to offset the financial effects of the past two years. “I just wanted to point out that right now we have a lower budget than we expected,” Glaze said.
To that she added: “Every project that is getting ready to start building hardware says that we have to have money that is in our budgets for that year. We need it now to get going with these early acquisitions. And so we try to accommodate that as well.”
Members of the Venus scientific community were frustrated by this decision, especially given how long they had to wait for a NASA mission to advance Venus science. The last NASA mission to Venus, Magellan, arrived at the planet in 1989 and ended science operations in 1994. Since then, NASA has not sent a specialized mission to Venus. But much to the delight of scientists who study Venus, NASA greenlights two missions to Venus, VERITAS and DAVINCI, in June last year. DAVINCI is still on track for a 2029 launch, but VERITAS was not so lucky.
“A three-year delay isn’t much in the scheme of NASA’s Venus mission frequency, but the data that VERITAS will return is sorely needed — so to have to wait even longer, especially through no fault of the VERITAS team — is very unfair,” Byrne said.
VERITAS team members present at the meeting expressed frustration at having to bear the brunt of budget and workforce issues when they are not over budget or have any staffing issues. “I understand that you are not responsible for the things that will be evaluated, it is out of your control,” Glaze said to a member of the VERITAS team. “I can commit to you and your team that we will be transparent and work with you.”
The science team at VERITAS will be deployed to other missions before continuing work on the Venus mission later. “We will provide some level of support during the containment for the science team to continue to meet, to continue to talk, to continue to think toward as we move forward in the 2024 timeframe,” Glaze said.
There will also be an assessment of JPL’s progress in addressing the problems identified in the report, as well as the progress made on two upcoming missions, NASA’s Europa Clipper and NISAR, which are scheduled to launch in 2024. launch window, the funding implications of that would be, I would say, almost catastrophic,” Glaze said.
The Psyche mission was designed to discover the origins of the 140-mile (226-kilometer) wide asteroid, but its delay has already revealed more than NASA expected. “I’ve heard that there are serious staffing issues at JPL, but that’s true of a lot of places because of the covid-19 pandemic and other issues,” Byrne said. “But I had no idea how bad things were.”
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