WASHINGTON — The head of a delayed NASA mission to Venus has warned that the project risks losing critical expertise if the agency doesn’t find a way to move up the mission.
NASA selected the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy, or VERITAS, mission in 2021 as one of two Discovery-class missions to Venus, at the time planned for launch in the late 2020s. VERITAS would go into orbit around Venus and study the planet using several instruments, including a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imager.
However, the agency decided a year ago to delay the mission by three years, to no earlier than 2031, citing the findings of an review into delays of another NASA mission, Psyche, that found institutional problems at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The delay, NASA said, would address a “workforce imbalance” at JPL, which is the lead center for VERITAS, and free up funding needed to accommodate the Psyche delay.
At a meeting last week of the Venus Exploration Analysis Group, or VEXAG, the principal investigator for VERITAS argued that many of the issues that prompted the delay have been resolved. “Those issues are essentially behind us,” said Sue Smrekar of JPL, citing the launch in October of Psyche and progress on two other major JPL-led missions, Europa Clipper and the NISAR Earth science spacecraft, both on schedule for launches in 2024.
She said an extended delay, as still planned by NASA, threatened the personnel available for VERITAS, particular for its SAR instrument being developed at JPL. “There’s insufficient radar work at JPL. The radar workforce is really at threat,” she said. “It’s a really big technical threat for us.”
She noted that while NASA has provided some funding for VERITAS to maintain its science team, there was “zero support for engineering development” for the mission. That has led some engineering staff assigned to the mission to seek other work at JPL.
“We are losing our key team members all the time,” she said. “Over the dozen years it took us to get selected we developed a highly experienced, knowledgeable team, and they have to go take other jobs.”
The mission is studying launch opportunities for VERITAS in 2031 and 2032 as requested by NASA, but Smrekar said there was an earlier launch opportunity in November 2029 that was still feasible. An earlier launch would not only address the workforce concerns but also deconflict with two other Venus missions, NASA’s DAVINCI and ESA’s EnVision, arriving at Venus in the early 2030s.
“We can still make that opportunity if we get rolling in the next year,” she said of the November 2029 window.
The biggest challenge to that is available funding, which is facing difficulties from both overall budget pressures on the agency as well as cost growth on missions like Mars Sample Return. “It’s totally true that the budget is a mess, a disaster,” she acknowledged. “But that doesn’t mean that there’s no funding.”
A draft of the report accompanying the House version of a commerce, justice and science appropriations bill for fiscal year 2024, released last week by the House Appropriations Committee, does provide support for VERITAS. “The Committee recommends that NASA request sufficient funding to ensure a launch by the end of the decade,” it said of VERITAS, directing NASA to provide a budget profile “to ensure the mission can remain on track.”
“Our risk goes up the longer we are delayed and the longer we get no funding,” Smrekar said at the VEXAG meeting.