NASA’s VERITAS Mission Breathes New Life

In a win for planetary scientists, and planetary geologists in particular, it was announced at the recent 55th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in Texas earlier this month that NASA’s VERITAS mission to the planet Venus has been reinstated into NASA’s Fiscal Year 2025 (FY25) budget with a scheduled launch date of 2031, with the unofficial announcement coming on the first day of the conference, March 11, 2024, and being officially announced just a few days later. This comes after VERITAS experienced a “soft cancellation” in March of last year when NASA revealed its FY24 budget, providing VERITAS only $1.5 million, which was preceded by the launch of VERITAS being delayed a minimum of three years due to findings from an independent review board in November 2022.

Dr. Sue Smrekar, who is the Principal Investigator for the VERITAS mission, announcing during LPSC 2024 that VERITAS has been reinstated.

Here, Universe Today speaks with Dr. Paul Byrne, who is an Associate Professor of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, and a huge proponent of exploring Venus, about his thoughts on VERITAS being reinstated, the alleged events that led to VERITAS’ reinstatement, his experience between VERITAS being postponed to now, and his thoughts on what science VERITAS hopes to accomplish at Venus. So, what are his thoughts on VERITAS being reinstated?

“First and foremost, it’s relief,” Dr. Byrne tells Universe Today. “Although VERITAS wasn’t cancelled per se, we in the planetary community weren’t sure if or where VERITAS would be reinstated. Although it’s disappointing to have a selected mission be delayed, it’s a very positive sign that VERITAS is back in the budget. Of course, there’s a flip side to this development: the mission’s stablemate, DAVINCI, has itself been delayed. It’s clear that the prevailing budget situation at NASA is very tough right now, and lots of missions are feeling it. Unfortunately, with two Venus missions in the pipeline, the Venus community is feeling this budget toughness most acutely.”

After years of being proposed as a NASA Discovery mission, VERITAS was officially selected in June 2021, along with DAVINCI (previously known as DAVINCI+) to explore the second planet from the Sun like never before. While VERITAS will be tasked with producing new surface maps of Venus, DAVINCI was tasked with conducting atmospheric science, as debate continues over the potential habitability of Venus’ atmosphere. With an initial scheduled launch date between 2028 and 2030, the November 2022 findings pushed this back to 2031, only to result in the “soft cancellation” just months later. With the planetary science community pushing for VERITAS to be reinstated over the last 12 months, what led to VERITAS being reinstated?

“A major part of it was, in my view, strong advocacy not only by the Venus community but by the planetary science community at large,” Dr. Byrne tells Universe Today. “Other advisory groups—volunteer groups charged with collating and representing to NASA the needs of a given portion of the planetary science community—voiced very loud, strong support for VERITAS beyond just the Venus community, in a wonderful example of community-wide support. Groups such as The Planetary Society also lent their voice to supporting VERITAS. That advocacy was noticed by NASA HQ and by Congress, which played no small role in getting VERITAS back into the budget.”

While not officially a member of the VERITAS mission team, Dr. Byrne has a myriad of publications about Venus, including as a co-author on five LPSC 2024 studies that discussed lava flow cooling, Venus’ potential habitability as an analog for other planets, predicting tectonic activity, predicting future volcanic activity, and current active volcanism. Additionally, Dr. Byrne has expressed his continued support via social media for both the second planet from the Sun and the VERITAS and DAVINCI missions throughout their respective journeys, and specifically when they were selected in June 2021. Therefore, what kind of emotional roller coaster has he experienced between VERITAS being canceled and now?

“It’s so hard to see a mission being selected for a science target NASA hasn’t been to in forty years, only for it to be postponed through no fault of the mission team itself,” Dr. Byrne tells Universe Today. “And it’s wonderful that we now know VERITAS will fly, even if it’s later than originally planned. But I’m keenly aware, as someone who’s not a member of the VERITAS team, that the highs and lows I’ve experienced are nothing compared with those of the team itself, who put their heart and soul (and at least three attempts!) to get VERITAS selected. Better late than never, but better on time than late. Still, we make do with the circumstances we face!”

As Dr. Byrne alluded to, the last NASA mission to Venus was the Magellan spacecraft, which was launched on May 4, 1989, from the Space Shuttle Atlantis during the STS-30R mission and arrived at Venus on August 10, 1990. Over the course of the next four years, Magellan used its synthetic aperture radar to map the entire surface of Venus since the extreme thickness of Venus’ clouds prevents direct imaging of the surface.

After Magellan’s first imaging cycle that lasted 243 days, it successfully mapped 83.7 percent of Venus’ surface, which increased to 96 percent after its second cycle and completed its mission at 98 percent after its third cycle. As a result, Magellan images identified a myriad of features across the Venusian surface, including volcanic evidence, tectonic activity, lava channels, pancake-shaped domes, and stormy winds across the surface. Therefore, with VERIATS equally tasked with mapping Venus’ surface, what science does VERITAS hope to achieve at Venus?

“VERITAS will carry a radar to Venus to obtain the most comprehensive, accurate, and highest-resolution radar image and topographic data ever acquired for the second planet,” Dr. Byrne tells Universe Today. “VERITAS will also be able to acquire spectral measurements of the surface in the infrared, offering us new insight into the composition of the planet’s surface materials. Moreover, the topographic and geodetic data VERITAS will return will in turn be used to help calibrate data from DAVINCI and the ESA EnVision mission, too.”

What new discoveries will VERITAS make about Venus in the coming years and decades? Only time will tell, and this is why we science!

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!