A highly anticipated mission to Venus is in trouble after NASA pulled all of its funding, save for a tiny fraction meant to keep the planetary orbiter on brittle life support as its fate hangs in the balance.
Last week, NASA released its budget request for 2024 with a proposed total of $27.2 billion, of which $3.383 billion would be allocated towards planetary science. However, the space agency only requested $1.5 million for its Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS) mission, a major downgrade from the projected 2024 budget of the mission that was estimated at $124 million.
“It’s just barely enough to keep us alive,” Darby Dyar, the deputy principal investigator of the VERITAS mission, told Gizmodo over the phone. Dyar, who is 65 years old, has been working on the mission for 12 years now, and was looking forward to finally seeing it in action. “When they push this mission back, that means I’m gonna be old when we get to Venus,” she added. “I’m taking my vitamins and taking care of myself. I’m hanging in there, man.”
The mission was originally slated for launch in 2027, but now has a tentative timeline to launch no earlier than 2031. “This isn’t a full-out cancellation, it’s kind of a soft cancellation,” Casey Dreier, chief of space policy at The Planetary Society, told Gizmodo over the phone. The team does “get some lifeline money to kind of stay in business...to write reports and to stay together as a team. But otherwise, they’re kind of left in a holding pattern because the mission isn’t cancelled, so it’s kind of a zombie mission at the moment.”
And nobody wants a zombie mission, especially when that mission was way overdue to begin with. NASA’s last mission to Venus, Magellan, arrived at the planet in 1989 and concluded science operations in 1994. Since then, NASA hasn’t sent out a mission to Earth’s neighboring planet, much to the disdain of the highly dedicated Venus community. In 2021, NASA selected not one but two missions to the scorching hot planet, delighting Venus devotees for a brief moment before their planetary hopes were crushed. “Personally, I feel very disappointed that the seemingly new progress on exploring Venus by NASA has already been dealt a blow,” Paul Byrne, associate professor of Earth and Planetary Science at Washington University, told Gizmodo in an email.
For the past 30 years, scientists studying Venus have mostly been working off of old data collected by Magellan. In fact, by analyzing old images from Magellan, a team of scientists recently discovered active volcanism on the planet.
VERITAS is designed to create a global map of Venus, producing high-resolution radar maps of its surface, and would be the first mission to map the rock composition of the planet. “VERITAS is the mission that we waited 30 years for,” Dyar said. “This is really fundamental science that you start to do first when you start exploring a planet.”
The looming cancellation of VERITAS has little to do with the mission itself and virtually everything to do with institutional problems at JPL that came to light with the release of an independent review board report in November 2022. The board was put together to examine the future of the Psyche mission to study a metal-rich asteroid, which had missed its initial launch window in August 2022 due to development delays. However, the board pointed out issues at JPL that went far beyond just that one mission, including staffing, workload, and budget.
But for the VERITAS team members, it feels unfair for their mission to suffer when it was on schedule, on budget, and generally drama-free. “I’m a scientist and when someone makes a decision that affects me, I like to know the why,” Dyar said. “I’m not satisfied with the why.”
When I asked The Planetary Society’s Dreier that very same question, “Why?” He said there isn’t necessarily one single answer. “I think it’s really important to emphasize that this mission was on budget, it was on schedule, until NASA decided that it wasn’t,” Dreier said. “This is a self-imposed delay and cost because even if they do pick this back up, it’ll cost a lot more than it originally did because of this huge disruption.”
During the annual meeting of the Venus Exploration Analysis Group in November 2022, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division Lori Glaze described the VERITAS mission delay as “the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do probably in my whole life.” However, Glaze said that in trying to address challenges highlighted by the independent review board, “there were zero good options.”
Following the delay of the Psyche mission, NASA decided to lighten up the workload at JPL to prevent it from threatening other missions, like the Mars Sample Return and the Europa Clipper, according to Dreier. VERITAS is a relatively smaller mission compared to those two, which NASA may have prioritized moving forward as it tries to resolve the workforce issues at JPL.
“VERITAS is low on their list of priorities,” Dreier said. “I think VERITAS, by no fault of the project, was just kind of the politically vulnerable project that solved other problems for NASA.”
NASA is juggling a lot at the moment. The space agency has plans to return humans to the Moon by 2025, visit Jupiter’s moon Europa in 2030, retrieve samples from Mars by 2033, and do it all with just enough funding to get by. “On the scale of government spending, we’re allocating less than one half of a penny of every tax dollar to NASA,” Dreier said. On top of that, NASA faces the same challenges imposed by inflation, and supply chain shortages, as well as the newly added challenge of competing with private space companies for skilled employees.
But there is hope yet. The 2024 budget request is merely a proposal and there’s still time for it to be amended. There are efforts by the science community to lobby members of congress to increase the funding for NASA’s planetary science, in addition to an online petition to support the launch of VERITAS in 2029.
There is a launch window for VERITAS in 2029, but the team needs funding at least five years ahead of the launch date to prepare for the mission. “As soon as they give us money again, we’ll spin back up. It’s just a question of how fast we can do it,” Dyar said. “I remain hopeful, but I also remain a little frustrated.”
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