A highly anticipated Venus probe sees its funding slashed — and some scientists are very upset

The effective cancellation of the VERITAS probe has some scientists fuming

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 30, 2023 5:00AM (EDT)

Planet Venus (Getty Images/3quarks)
Planet Venus (Getty Images/3quarks)

NASA's 2024 budget request includes a near-total reduction in funding for a highly anticipated Venus mission — and now, a number of prominent scientists are saying that the decision amounts to an effective cancellation of a highly anticapated mission to the second planet.

Yet not all space scientists and engineers agree with that assessment, saying that NASA budget critics are misusing the word "cancel." The budget reduction has sparked a debate among the community of astronomers, scientists and engineers who advocate for space exploration.

The mission in question is known as VERITAS, short for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS). Originally slated to launch in 2027 before being pushed forward to 2031 and then back to 2029, the spacecraft is a probe that would orbit the planet, capturing the surface details via radar and creating 3D maps of the planet. The process could help scientists confirm which, if any, volcanoes are still active on Venus, while learning more about its geology. The last Venusian NASA orbiter was Magellan, which launched in 1989 and operated until 1994. 

The Planetary Society's chief of space policy Casey Dreier is one such VERITAS advocate who believes the proposed budget cut amounts to an effective shuttering of the mission. Speaking to Gizmodo, Dreier said that the budget change doesn't amount to "full-out cancellation, it's kind of a soft cancellation." Dreier argued that — because NASA has only requested $1.5 million in the 2024 budget proposal, instead of the expected $124 million — engineers and scientists working on the project will merely be able to keep their team functional for the year. Dreier said with such a paltry sum, they will be left "in a holding pattern [. . .] the mission isn't cancelled, so it's kind of a zombie mission at the moment." Planetary volcanologist Tracy Gregg of the University of Buffalo also used the "c" word, warning Axios that NASA's decision "suggests to everybody, not just in the Venus community, but to everybody in the planetary science community that NASA can arbitrarily cancel or delay missions that have already been selected."

Darby Dyar, VERITAS' deputy principal investigator, seemed to sum up the consensus view when he told Space.com that "the idea of standing the team down to help other missions just doesn't make sense in detail, and is really going to introduce a great deal of risk."

Based on the statements he received from NASA at a town hall held by the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, "NASA does not intend to cancel VERITAS but only delay it, with a restart as soon as the budget allows. I take them at the word on that."

Yet not all experts are denouncing NASA's actions in such heated terms. Dr. Robert Herrick, a research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute who recently co-authored a study on Venusian volcanoes, told Salon by email that based on the statements he received from NASA at a town hall held by the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, "NASA does not intend to cancel VERITAS but only delay it, with a restart as soon as the budget allows. I take them at the word on that." While emphasizing that he is not authorized to speak on behalf of the VERITAS mission regarding NASA's budget issues, Herrick added that it seemed reasonable to allow the European Space Agency's EnVision to begin observing the planet and then have VERITAS later work with EnVision. "There are excellent scientific reasons to try to launch VERITAS late in this decade so that it precedes the EnVision launch."

Noam Izenberg, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and Chair of NASA's Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG), told Salon that he finds the decision to delay to be "extremely disappointing." Yet Izenberg argued that given NASA's repeatedly stated commitment to Venus exploration, "budget and workforce concerns make it, I believe, a question of 'when,' but not 'if.'"

Indeed, NASA is arguing that its decision was not due solely to traditional budgetary concerns, but also because an investigation last year scathingly criticized NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for delays and serious logistical problems with other missions due to workforce shortages and poor planning. Consequently, the agency has decided that other missions such as Europa Clipper, Psyche and NISAR need to be completed before VERITAS can have its turn at bat.

"As for when, a delay to a 2031 launch is far from optimum, and there are compelling reasons (for science, workforce, and budget) to move it back up to a late 2029 launch," Izenberg wrote to Salon. "This would require additional short-term money NASA does not have in its current, already strained budget, but which may be within Congress' power to grant." The solution may have to come from ordinary citizens: "Ongoing, positive support from the community now and moving forward is one of the best ways to convince this should be done. The VERITAS team has put out great information to inform those interested in supporting the mission."

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Herrick told Salon that there are other possibilities for getting VERITAS to launch within this decade, from private companies to efforts by other nations' space agencies. 

Izenberg also mentioned the plethora of existing and upcoming Venus-based missions — including Japan's Akatsuki mission (in orbit around Venus since 2015), a private small Venus mission by Rocket Lab currently set to 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 a couple weeks ago, even at 30 years old, the venerable data sets from Venus like Magellan's global radar maps still have new things to tell us today," Izenberg told Salon. Izenberg was referring to a recent study that used Magellan data, and which suggested there was active volcanic activity on Venus. If confirmed, this 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 maximize the return from all the upcoming missions," Izenberg continued.

The volcano study is one of several recent papers that have led to a surge of renewed interest in studying Venus. Venus was the subject of intense study when, in 2020, astronomers believe they had detected phosphine gas, which is associated with anaerobic bacteria, in small concentrations in Venus' atmosphere. However, subsequent studies did not detect phosphine.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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