WASHINGTON — The head of a Venus mission delayed at least three years by NASA in response to problems with another mission says she will attempt to shorten that delay.
As part of the Nov. 4 release of an independent review board’s report on the delays with the Psyche mission, which uncovered broader institutional issues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where it was being developed, NASA announced it would delay the launch of the Venus Emissivity, Radio science, InSAR, Topography, And Spectroscopy, or VERITAS, Venus orbiter mission by at least three years, to no earlier than 2031. VERITAS, like Psyche, is run by JPL.
“This postponement can offset both the workforce imbalance for at least those three years and provide some of the increased funding that will be required to continue Psyche towards that 2023 launch,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said at an online town hall meeting to discuss the report.
NASA selected VERITAS and another Venus mission, DAVINCI+, in the latest round of its Discovery program of planetary science missions in June 2021. While VERITAS will study the planet from orbit, DAVINCI+, or Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging, will send a probe into the planet’s atmosphere. It remains scheduled for launch in June 2029.
The announcement of the delay in VERITAS came days before the annual meeting of the Venus Exploration Analysis Group, or VEXAG, to discuss Venus science and planned missions like VERITAS. Scientists used part of the meeting to discuss the ramifications of the delay of the mission and efforts to minimize the delay.
Suzanne Smrekar of JPL, principal investigator for VERITAS, said there were no problems with the mission itself when NASA decided to delay it. “To this point, we have been on schedule and on budget, and we have an excellent and highly experienced team,” she said in a Nov. 7 presentation about the mission.
VERITAS had already taken steps to address recommendations from the Psyche independent review, such as moving work out of JPL and reducing spending in 2022 and 2023. “We had already done our best faith effort to contribute to the issues being faced.”
She said she wanted to work with NASA and the science community on ways to shorten the delay, noting there were “many opportunities” between the mission’s original launch date of the end of 2027 and the current no-earlier-than date of 2031 to launch VERITAS. “There are many chances to pull back from the brink if things improve.”
Delaying VERITAS creates problems for the mission and its team, Smrekar. Several of the orbiter’s instruments are provided by partners in France, Germany and Italy, who are also working on a European Space Agency Venus mission, EnVision. “This puts the workforce pileup onto our foreign partners, and we’ll be working to assess these consequences.”
The delay in VERITAS means it will launch at about the same time as EnVision. Scientists had planned to use data from VERITAS to inform planning for EnVision, such as looking for active volcanism and other changes on the planet. Smrekar said it was unclear if there were technical issues about operating the missions at the same time, including conducting aerobraking in the atmosphere of Venus.
She added she was concerned that the delay would force it to disband the team currently assembled, creating a loss of expertise that the independent review had warned about. It will also affect the science team, including students and early-career researchers. “We want to continue to find a way to engage them despite the fact that the data is so far out.”
“There are many, many downsides to doing this with respect to the knowledge base, the expertise, the risk, the cost,” she said of the delay. “There are many reasons to try to pull us back if at all possible.”
Smrekar said the mission would work both with NASA Headquarters and the broader science community to try to reduce the delay. During the VEXAG meeting, participants discussed recommending to NASA that it either reduce the delay in VERITAS to 1 to 1.5 years or select a single Discovery mission, rather than two, in the next round of the program.
“We understand there are very big hurdles to doing this,” she said of shortening the mission’s delay, “but we will try to find a way.”