NASA continues to weigh VERITAS versus future Discovery mission

WASHINGTON — Budget pressures in NASA’s planetary science program may force the agency to choose between continuing a mission to Venus that has already been delayed or requesting proposals for a future mission.

NASA’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal, released March 13, included $3.383 billion for planetary science, a 5.7% increase over what Congress appropriated for 2022. In rolling out the budget, the agency emphasized the funding included in the proposal for larger planetary missions such as Mars Sample Return and Europa Clipper.

However, the proposal included only $1.5 million for the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS) mission, a Venus orbiter selected by NASA in 2021 as one of two Discovery missions. NASA had expected to spend $56.7 million on VERITAS in 2024 in its fiscal year 2023 budget proposal.

NASA announced in November 2022 that it was delaying VERITAS by at least three years in response to the findings of an independent review committee on the problems with the Psyche mission, which missed its 2022 launch due to delays in testing software for that asteroid mission. The independent review found institutional problems at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages both Psyche and VERITAS, prompting NASA to delay VERITAS to allow JPL to fix those problems while focusing on other missions.

The $1.5 million offered to VERITAS in the 2024 budget proposal is intended to allow the mission’s science team to continue work. However, the future “outyears” budget projections for VERITAS keep the mission at $1.5 million per year through fiscal year 2028, effectively delaying the mission indefinitely.

“It’s functionally a soft cancellation,” Casey Dreier, chief of space policy at The Planetary Society, said during a March 16 webinar on the budget proposal hosted by the Aerospace Industries Association. “It shows that there is a lot of pressure, especially within the planetary budget.”

At a NASA town hall meeting during the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference (LPSC) on March 14, Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters, defended the decision to delay VERITAS. “We looked across the board at a lot of different options, and the VERITAS delay was the one we chose. There were no good options here,” she said.

She said there were three criteria for restarting VERITAS as soon as 2025. One is to secure the necessary funding for the mission, while another is for JPL to show progress in implementing recommendations from the independent review of the Psyche delay, something as JPL’s director, Laurie Leshin, said at a recent advisory committee meeting that the lab did.

A third factor, according to Glaze, was that JPL could launch both the Europa Clipper and the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) Earth science mission, another mission in which JPL plays a leading role. Any delay in either, she said, would tie up staff and resources at VERITAS.

During the town hall, scientists criticized NASA for delaying VERITAS. Among those who spoke was Suzanne Smrekar, principal investigator for VERITAS, who said the budget would require JPL to disband an experienced engineering team working on its design.

“This mission, which was on track, effectively becomes the martyr of all the missions that go over budget,” she said. “The reason so many in the community are outraged by this is these facts that a mission that was on track is contingent on Earth science missions and all sorts of things that have nothing to do with us.”

Glaze indicated that even if VERITAS clears these obstacles, there is no guarantee that the mission will continue. She suggested that NASA may be forced to choose whether to continue VERITAS or hold a competition for the next Discovery-class mission, currently scheduled for fiscal year 2025.

“I’ve asked the community to provide feedback on priorities for the next Discovery calls and support for the chosen mission, VERITAS,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of good support from the community to restart VERITAS, even if it means we won’t be holding the next Discovery call.”

At a February 27 meeting of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group, members discussed a question posed by NASA headquarters asking if they supported restarting VERITAS in relation to a new Discovery mission. Most seemed to support VERITAS if NASA had to choose between them.

“It would be very upsetting to miss the Discovery call, but if they’re implying that they would reimburse VERITAS for funding the Discovery call, that’s even less acceptable,” said Bruce Banerdt of JPL, who was the principal investigator on another Discovery mission, the InSight Mars lander.

Glaze said she got similar comments from the overall planetary science community supporting the continuation of VERITAS versus another Discovery mission. “We heard from the community. We want to look at where we are and see what we can support,” she said.

She attributed the delay to broader issues, such as the effects of the pandemic, supply chain challenges and increased operating costs, which she estimated were in the hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as the JPL-specific issues. “It was the decision that was made to delay a mission at JPL to not only free up the resources but also to free up the bandwidth to deal with the full range of issues across JPL.”

The Discovery budget problem is also affecting a number of smallsat missions. While Glaze and others at NASA have expressed support for Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx), the fiscal year 2024 budget request said NASA plans to request only one SIMPLEx mission in future years with a draft fiscal year opportunity statement 2024. That mission, with a cost cap of $85 million, would fly with the DAVINCI Venus mission in 2030.

NASA selected three SIMPLEx missions in 2019 at a cost cap of $55 million each, although the three missions have run into cost overruns or other problems. That includes the Janus asteroid mission, which missed its trip due to the Psyche delay. Glaze said the project is looking at alternative missions that twin smallsats could carry out. “If they find something that looks convincing, we told them our door is open.”

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