Scientists Erupt At NASA Gutting Funding For Crucial Venus Mission
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The scientific community is reeling after NASA gutted funding for a key Venus mission that was “poised to answer some of the biggest questions about the planet and its volcanic activity,” reports The Verge. From the report:
This month saw the announcement of one of the most exciting findings about Venus in decades: the first direct evidence of an active volcano there. […] This finding is “mind-blowing,” Venus scientist Darby Dyar told The Verge, opening up possibilities to learn about Venus’ geology and atmosphere as well as whether the planet was once habitable. But in the space science community, the excitement about this finding is being overshadowed by the “soft cancellation” of a key NASA Venus mission, which Dyar is also deputy principal investigator for and which had been set to launch in 2028.
The Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS) mission was one of three missions set to explore Venus in the next few years, kicking off NASA’s “decade of Venus” and seeing a return to the study of our planetary neighbor, which scientists have been calling for for years. But at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference held recently in Houston, Texas, VERITAS principal investigator Sue Smrekar announced that the mission’s funding had been completely gutted, leaving the mission in a state of precarious limbo.
This came as a surprise to many of the conference attendees, who were soon tweeting their support for the mission using the hashtag #SaveVERITAS. The Planetary Society also put out a statement describing the delay of the mission’s launch by at least three years as “uncalled-for” and calling on NASA to commit to launching by 2029. NASA has cited problems with another mission, Psyche, as the reason for delaying VERITAS by at least three years. Both Psyche and VERITAS are managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the NASA / Caltech research center that is responsible for building robotic spacecraft such as the Mars rovers. JPL had problems meeting its requirements for the Psyche mission, which aims to visit a metal asteroid, and missed its launch date last year. An independent review into the missed launch found it was due to, among other problems, workforce issues at JPL.
Budget cuts and cancellations aren’t uncommon, but the situation with VERITAS is different because it “had already been selected by NASA to be part of its Discovery Program,” adds the Verge. “Historically, once a mission has been selected by NASA, those working on it can be confident that funding will be available. If a delay happens — as is not uncommon in large, complex missions — then a lower level of funding is typically made available to keep the basic essentials in place, called bridge funding, until full funding can be restored.”
Although the team asked NASA for bridge funding to maintain mission essentials, “virtually all of their funding has been cut, leaving them with a tiny $1.5 million per year,” says the report. “This is a highly unusual situation for a selected mission because delaying and restarting missions is so expensive.”