NASA’s budget request for 2024 includes an almost complete cut in funding for the highly anticipated Venus mission — and now, a number of prominent scientists say the decision amounts to an effective cancellation of a highly faltering mission to the second planet.
However, not all aerospace scientists and engineers agree with this assessment, saying that critics of NASA’s budget misuse the word “cancellation.” The budget cut sparked controversy among the community of astronomers, scientists, and engineers who advocate space exploration.
The mission in question is known as VERITAS, which stands for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS). The spacecraft, originally scheduled to launch in 2027 before being pushed forward to 2031 and then back to 2029, is a probe that will orbit the planet, capturing surface details via radar and creating 3D maps of the planet. This process could help scientists confirm which volcanoes, if any, are still active on Venus, while learning more about its geology. The last NASA spacecraft was Magellanwhich was launched in 1989 and lasted until 1994.
Casey Dreyer, the planetary society’s chief of space policy, is one such advocate of Veritas who believes the proposed budget cut amounts to an effective mission shutdown. Speaking to Gizmodo, Dreyer He said That changing the budget does not amount to a “total repeal, it’s kind of an easy repeal”. Dreyer argued that — since NASA requested only $1.5 million in its 2024 budget proposal, instead of the projected $124 million — the engineers and scientists working on the project will only be able to keep their team working all year. With such a paltry sum, they’ll leave, Dreyer said, “in a waiting pattern [. . .] The mission hasn’t been cancelled, so it’s kind of a zombie mission for now. Planetary volcanologist Tracy Gregg of the University at Buffalo also used the “c” word, Axios Warning That NASA’s decision “suggests to everyone, not just the Venusian community, but everyone in the planetary science community that NASA can arbitrarily cancel or delay missions that have already been selected.”
Darby Diar, deputy principal investigator for Veritas, seemed to sum up the consensus view when he said Tell Space.com that “the idea of supporting the team to help other missions doesn’t make sense in detail, and would really introduce a great deal of risk.”
Based on statements he received from NASA at the Town Hall of the Planetary and Lunar Science Conference, “NASA does not intend to cancel VERITAS but only postpone it, with a restart as soon as the budget allows. It’s on that.”
However, not all experts condemn NASA’s actions in such heated terms. Dr. Robert Herrick, a research professor at the Institute of Geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and who recently co-authored a study on Venusian volcanoes, told Salon via email that based on statements he received from NASA at the town hall the Moon and Moon held. Planetary Science Conference, “NASA does not intend to cancel Veritas but only postpone it, with a restart as soon as the budget allows. I’m talking about it.” While emphasizing that he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the VERITAS mission regarding NASA budget issues, Herrick added that it seemed reasonable to allow ESA EnVision to begin observing the planet and then VERITAS later work with EnVision. “There are excellent scientific reasons to try to launch VERITAS later in the decade so as to precede the launch of EnVision.”
Noam Isenberg, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and head of NASA’s Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG), told Salon that he finds the decision to postpone “very disappointing.” However, Eisenberg argued that given NASA’s repeatedly stated commitment to exploring Venus, “budget and manpower concerns make it, I think, a matter of ‘when’ but not ‘if’.”
Indeed, NASA argues that its decision was not only due to traditional budget concerns, but also because an investigation last year harshly criticized NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for delays and serious logistical problems with other missions due to manpower shortages and poor planning. Consequently, the agency decided that other missions such as Europa Clipper, Psyche, and NISAR had to be completed before VERITAS could fulfill its part at bat.
“As for time, the delay to launch 2031 is far from optimal, and there are compelling reasons (for science, manpower and budget) to move it back to late 2029,” Eisenberg wrote to Salon. “This will require additional short-term funds that NASA does not have in its already stretched current budget, but which may be within the power of Congress to grant.” The solution may have to come from ordinary citizens: “Continued, positive support from the community now and moving forward is one of the best ways to convince us that this should be done. The VERITAS team has put together a great line-up to inform those interested in supporting the mission.”
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Herrick told Salon that there are other possibilities for Veritas launches within this decade, from private companies to efforts by space agencies in other countries.
Izenberg also mentioned a slew of upcoming Venus-based missions — including Japan’s Akatuska mission, a small private Venus mission by Rocket Lab that’s currently scheduled for launch in January 2025; and NASA’s DAVINCI+ mission, which is scheduled to send a probe deep into Venus’ atmosphere in the summer of 2029.
“Finally, as Robbie Herrick’s paper showed us two weeks ago, even at 30 years old, venerable datasets from Venus such as Magellan’s Global Radar Maps still have new things to tell us today,” Eisenberg told Salon. Izenberg was referring to a recent study that used Magellan data, which suggested active volcanism on Venus. If confirmed, it would mean that Venus is the only planet in our solar system (along with Earth) that still has active volcanoes. “There is still research that can be done now that will help us prepare for and increase the return on all upcoming missions,” Eisenberg continued.
The volcano study is one of several recent papers that have fueled renewed interest in the study of Venus. Venus was the subject of intense study when, in 2020, astronomers thought they had detected phosphine gas associated with anaerobic bacteria in small concentrations in Venus’ atmosphere. However, subsequent studies did not detect phosphine.
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