Rocket Lab will self-fund a mission to search for life in the clouds of Venus

Rocket Lab will self-fund a mission to search for life in the clouds of Venus
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An artist's impression of the proposed Rocket Lab mission to Venus.
Enlarge / An artist’s impression of the proposed Rocket Lab mission to Venus.

MDPI Aerospace/Rocket Laboratory

Never let it be said that Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck lacks a flamboyant streak.

Although his Electron launch vehicle is one of the world’s smallest orbital rockets, Beck gets as much performance out of the booster as he can get. Only on the rocket’s second launch, in January 2018, did it add a disco-ball-like geodesic sphere called the “Star of Humanity” to give humans a small, bright object to gaze at, however briefly, in the sky. night.

“The goal of the show is to make everyone look up to the star, but also beyond the star to the Universe, and reflect on the fact that we are one species, on one planet.” he said at the time.

In interviews since then, Beck has made no secret of his love for the world closest to humanity, Venus. The surface of that hellish planet is a miasma of carbon dioxide, crushing pressures and scorching temperatures. But scientists believe that high above that terrifying surface, in the clouds of Venus, there are air pressures not unlike those found on Earth, where conditions could be ripe for some forms of life.

So Peter Beck wants to use his little Electron rocket, which is only 18 meters tall and can launch around 300kg into low Earth orbit, to find out.

venus next

On Tuesday night, Rocket Lab announced that it will self-fund the development and launch of a small spacecraft, which will send a small probe flying through the clouds of Venus for about 5 minutes, at an altitude of 48 to 60 km. Beck has teamed up with several leading planetary scientists, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sara Seager, to design this mission.

Electron will place the spacecraft into a 165 km orbit above Earth, where the rocket’s high-energy Photon upper stage will perform a series of firings to raise the spacecraft’s orbit and reach escape velocity. Assuming a launch in May 2023 (there’s a backup opportunity in January 2025), the spacecraft would reach Venus in October 2023. Once there, Photon would deploy a small probe weighing about 20kg into the atmosphere of Venus.

The spacecraft will be small, as deep space probes are, with a 1kg science payload consisting of an autofluorescent nephelometer, which is an instrument for detecting particles suspended in clouds. The goal is to search for organic chemicals in clouds and explore their habitability. The probe will spend about 5 minutes and 30 seconds falling through the upper atmosphere and then, ideally, continue transmitting data as it descends further toward the surface.

“The mission is the first opportunity to probe the particles of the Venusian cloud directly in nearly four decades,” states an article, published this weekdescribing the mission architecture. “Even with the limitations of mass and data rate and the limited time in the atmosphere of Venus, revolutionary science is possible.”

Smaller rockets, cheaper missions

In recent years, scientists and engineers from NASA, as well as from academia and industry, I have been looking towards the miniaturization of satellite technology and the profusion of smaller and less expensive rockets to expand the possibilities of robotic exploration of the Solar System. NASA achieved a significant milestone in 2018 when a pair of space agency-built CubeSats launched alongside the InSight mission. In space, the small MarCO-A and MarCO-B satellites unfurled their own solar arrays, stabilized, turned toward the Sun, and then traveled to Mars.

However, a small, privately developed and launched mission to Venus would represent an entirely different step. No private company has ever sent a spacecraft directly to another world in the Solar System beyond the Moon. This ambitious effort may fail. But why not try it? That seems to be Beck’s attitude.

Rocket Lab is currently financing the launch and spacecraft directly, which is likely to cost a few tens of millions of dollars. “Some philanthropic funding is in the works for different aspects of the mission, but it’s too early to discuss this in detail at this point,” said Morgan Bailey, a company spokeswoman.

So this is one big revolutionary gamble from Beck on his little Electron rocket. Earlier this year, he and his company already sent the CAPSTONE mission to the Moon for NASA and Advanced Space. If Beck is successful with a mission to Venus, he will no doubt draw the attention of scientists, NASA and others interested in what could be a promising new era of faster and cheaper exploration of the Solar System.

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