All is not well at NASA's JPL

All is not well at NASA’s JPL

Artist's rendering of the VERITAS Venus mission.

Artist’s rendering of the VERITAS Venus mission.
Image: NASA/JPL

NASA’s JPL is struggling with budget, personnel and poor communications issues, forcing the space agency to delay a highly anticipated mission to Venus.

At the annual meeting of the Venus Exploration Analysis Group On Monday, NASA Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze described the mission delay as “probably the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life.” However, Glaze said that in trying to overcome the challenges highlighted by an independent review panel, “there were no good options.”

NASA recently share the results of an independent review committee that has been appointed to decide the fate of the Psyche mission. The mission had missed its initial August 2022 launch window due to development delays, but is now targeting an October 2023 launch date to study a metal-rich asteroid. However, the report prepared by the review panel revealed issues that went well beyond those that led to the retardation of psyche.

An illustration of the Psyche spaceship.

An illustration of the Psyché mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2023.
Drawing: Nasa

The Independent Review Panel noted that there were not enough staff working on Psyche to allow for its timely completion, in addition to communication issues and staff working remotely due to the pandemic. of covid-19. The board also noted an unprecedented workload and an imbalance between workload and available resources at JPL.

Due to these issues, NASA has decided to delay the launch of its VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) for at least three years. “This is a heavy and bitter blow to the VERITAS team in particular, and to the Venus community in general,” planetary scientist Paul Byrne told Gizmodo in an email. “I am very disappointed.”

VERITAS was originally scheduled to launch in 2027 for a mission to map the surface of Venus and study its atmosphere. Its postponement to 2031 is intended to allow personnel working on VERITAS to contribute to missions more advanced in their development and to free up additional resources for the Psyche mission.

Glaze also cited the impact of covid-19 and the ongoing inflation crisis, saying NASA had not received any additional funding to offset the financial effects for the past two years. “I just wanted to point out that we’re currently accepting a lower budget than we had anticipated,” Glaze said.

To which she 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 that year. We need it now to be able to move forward and start these first acquisitions. And so we try to adapt to that as well.

Members of the Venus science community were frustrated with the decision, especially considering how long they had to wait for a NASA mission to advance Venus science. NASA’s last mission to Venus, Magellan, arrived on the planet in 1989 and concluded its science operations in 1994. Since then, NASA has not sent a specialized Venus mission. But to the delight of scientists who study Venus, NASA has lit two Venus missions green, VERITAS and DAVINCI, in June last year. DAVINCI is still on track to launch in 2029, but VERITAS hasn’t been so lucky.

“A three-year delay isn’t much in NASA’s Venus mission frequency scheme, but the data that VERITAS will return is absolutely necessary – so having to wait even longer, especially through no fault of the VERITAS team – seems very unfair,” Byrne said.

VERITAS team members who were present at the meeting expressed frustration at having to bear the brunt of budget and manpower issues when they did not go over budget or no problem with the staff. “I recognize that you are not responsible for the things that are going to be assessed, it’s out of your control,” Glaze said, speaking to a VERITAS team member. “I can commit to you and your team to be transparent and to work with you.”

The VERITAS science team will be reassigned to other missions before later resuming work on the mission to Venus. “We’re going to be providing some level of support throughout the suspension for the science team to keep meeting, to keep talking, to keep thinking about how we move forward into 2024,” Glaze said.

There will also be an assessment of the progress made at JPL toward resolving the issues noted in the report, as well as progress made for two upcoming missions, NASA’s Europa Clipper and NISAR, which are scheduled to launch in 2024. ‘they’re understaffed and they miss their launch window, the financial implications of that would be, I would go so far as to say, almost catastrophic,’ Glaze said.

The Psyche mission is designed to reveal the origins of a 140-mile-wide (226-kilometer) asteroid, but its delay has already revealed more than NASA expected. “I had heard there were serious staffing issues at JPL, but that’s true in many places due to the covid-19 pandemic and other issues,” Byrne said. “But I had no idea how bad things were going.”

After: NASA lacks plan to ditch space station in case of emergency

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