NASA’s JPL is struggling with budget, staffing and poor communications issues, forcing the space agency to delay a long-awaited mission to Venus.
At its annual meeting Venus Exploration Analysis Group On Monday, NASA Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze described the mission’s delay as “the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life.” However, Glaze said that in trying to address the challenges highlighted by an independent review panel, “there were zero good options”.
NASA recently shared the results of an independent review committee set up in decide the fate of the Psyche mission. The mission had missed its original launch window of August 2022 due to development delays, but is now targeting an October 2023 launch date to study a metal-rich asteroid. However, the review committee’s report revealed issues that went far beyond those that led to retardation of the Soul.
The independent review board noted that there were not enough staff working on Psyche to enable it to be completed on time, in addition to communication issues and staff 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.
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As a result of these issues, NASA decided to delay its launch VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) detector 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 said in an email to Gizmodo. “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. Its delay to 2031 is intended to allow personnel working on VERITAS to contribute to missions that continue their development and 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 impact of the past two years. “I just wanted to note that we are under budget right now than we expected,” Glaze said.
To which he added: “And so every project that’s getting ready to start building hardware says we have to have the money that’s in our budgets for that year. We need it now so we can go ahead and start those early supplies. And that’s how we try to adjust that too.”
Members of the Venusian science community were disappointed by the decision, especially considering how long they had to wait for a NASA mission to advance Venusian science. NASA’s last mission to Venus, Magellan, arrived at the planet in 1989 and completed scientific operations in 1994. Since then, NASA has not sent a dedicated mission to Venus. But to the great delight of the scientists who study Aphrodite, NASA has given the green light for two Venus missions, VERITAS and DAVINCI, last June. DAVINCI is still on track to launch in 2029, but VERITAS was not so lucky.
“A three-year delay is not long in NASA’s plan for the frequency of Venus missions, but the data that VERITAS will return is very necessary – so we have to wait even longer, especially through no fault of the VERITAS team – it feels very unfair,” Byrne said.
VERITAS team members present at the meeting expressed their frustration at having to bear the brunt of budget and workforce issues when they are under budget or have staffing issues. “I recognize that you are not responsible for the things that are going to be evaluated, that is out of your control,” Glaze said to a member of the VERITAS team. “I can commit to you and your team being transparent and working with you.”
The science team on VERITAS will be redeployed to other missions before continuing to work on the Venus mission at a later date. “We’re going to provide some level of support throughout the stopover for the science team to continue to meet, to continue to talk, to continue to think how we move to the 2024 timeline,” Glaze said.
There will also be an assessment of the progress made at JPL to resolve the issues noted 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. “If it’s understaffed and they miss the 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 (226-kilometer) wide asteroid, but its delay has already revealed more than NASA predicted. “I had heard there were serious staffing issues at JPL, but that’s true for many 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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