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 Rocket Lab's proposed mission to Venus.
to enlarge / An artist’s impression of Rocket Lab’s proposed mission to Venus.

MDPI Aerospace/Rocket Lab

It should never be said that Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck lacks a brilliant streak.

Even though his Electron Launch Vehicle is one of the smallest orbital rockets on Earth, Beck packs every bit of its performance. During the second launch of the rocket in January 2018, I added a disco-ball like geodesic sphere called the “Humanity Star” to give people a small and bright glowing object to look at, however briefly, in the night sky.

“The whole point of the program is for everyone to look at the stars, but to transcend the stars of the universe and reflect the fact that we are one species, on one planet.” i said in time

In interviews since then Beck has made no secret of his love for Venus, the next closest world to humanity. The surface of that hell-planet is a miasma of carbon dioxide, crushing pressure and burning temperatures. But scientists believe that this extreme surface, in the clouds of Venus, is not unlike the atmospheric pressure found on Earth, where conditions could be conducive to some form of life.

And so Peter Beck wants to use his small electron rocket, which stands but 18 meters long and can throw all of its weight of about 300 kg into low Earth orbit.

Venus is next

Rocket Lab announced Tuesday evening 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 at an altitude of 48 to 60 kilometers for about 5 minutes. Beck joined a number of renowned planetary scientists, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sarah Seeger, to design the mission.

Electron will propel the spacecraft to an orbit 165 km above Earth, where the rocket’s upper stage of high-energy photons will conduct several burns to raise the spacecraft’s orbit and reach escape velocity. Assuming a May 2023 launch – with a backup opportunity in January 2025 – the spacecraft will reach Venus in October 2023. Once there, Photon will deploy a small, approximately 20 kg probe into the Venusian atmosphere.

The spacecraft will be small, as deep-space probes go, carrying a 1 kg scientific payload containing an autofluorescent nephelometer, an instrument for detecting particles suspended in clouds. The goal is to search for biochemicals 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.

“This mission is the first opportunity in nearly four decades to directly investigate Venus cloud particles,” a paper said. Published this week, describing the mission architecture. “Even with mass and data rate limitations and limited time in the Venus atmosphere, breakthrough science is possible.”

Smaller rockets, cheaper missions

In recent years NASA scientists and engineers, as well as in academia and industry, looking at Miniaturization of satellite technology and expansion of smaller, less expensive rockets to expand the possibilities for robotic exploration of the solar system. NASA achieved a significant milestone in 2018 when a pair of CubeSats built by the space agency launched with the InSight mission. In space, the small MarCO-A and MarCO-B satellites deployed their own solar arrays, stabilized themselves, pivoted toward the Sun, and then traveled to Mars.

However, a privately developed and launched smaller mission to Venus would represent another step entirely. No private company has sent a spacecraft directly to any other world in the solar system outside the Moon. This very ambitious attempt may fail. But why not try? That seems to be Beck’s attitude.

Rocket Lab is currently directly funding the launch and spacecraft, which will likely cost several million dollars. “There are some philanthropic funds in the works toward various missions, but it’s too early to discuss the details at this time,” said Morgan Bailey, a company spokesman.

So this is Beck’s big, game-changing bet on his little electron rocket Earlier this year, he and his company already Capstone mission sent On the Moon for NASA and Advanced Space. If Beck succeeds in the Venus mission, he will surely draw the attention of scientists, NASA and others to what will be a promising new era of lower-cost, faster exploration of the solar system.

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