The space company Rocket Lab aims to launch the first private mission to another planet, which would hunt for life on Venus and blaze a new trail for commercial space entities in deep space exploration.
Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, has discussed his vision of a Venus mission before, but a new study outlines the plan in more detail and confirms that the probe could blast off as early as May 2023 on the company’s lightweight Electron rocket.
After a five-month cruise to Venus, Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft will drop off a small instrument that will descend for several minutes through the planet’s turbulent skies, which some scientists have speculated could host life, before kaputing on its surface, which is a torture pit of searing temperatures and crushing pressures.
The mission is unique not only because it is a private venture, but because Rocket Lab specializes in vehicles that are much smaller and more affordable than those typically used in interplanetary missions. Researchers led by Richard French, the director of business development and strategy, space systems, at Rocket Lab, said the mini-mission would therefore “support expanding opportunities for scientists and to increase the rate of science return,” in a study published this month in the journal Aerospace.
“One of our strategic goals is to demonstrate a high-performance, low-cost, fast-turnaround deep space entry mission delivering Decadal-class science with small spacecraft and small launch vehicles,” French said in an email. “That wouldn’t be possible without the commercial space capabilities we are bringing to the market to serve both commercial and government customers today.”
“We hope that our Venus mission opens the door for more commercial opportunities, particularly working in partnership with NASA and other civil space agencies, to advance interplanetary science and exploration,” he added.
The idea is to pioneer a cheaper option for trips beyond Earth, shepherded by private companies, for anyone interested in traveling a little lighter through deep space. Whereas NASA and other space agencies usually pack a suite of instruments on their missions, Rocket Lab’s Venus spacecraft will carry just one two-pound instrument called an autofluorescing nephelometer, which will look for signs of life by sampling particles in the clouds.
Though the surface of Venus is nightmarish, conditions are more temperate in the clouds, where sunlight shines through and water droplets swirl. For this reason, some scientists have suggested that Venus might host habitable pockets of sky, where enterprising microbes could thrive tens of miles above the surface hellscape, though no clear evidence of life on the planet has ever been found.
“The mission is the first opportunity to probe the Venus cloud particles directly in nearly four decades,” the team said in the study. “Even with the mass and data rate constraints and the limited time in the Venus atmosphere, breakthrough science is possible.”
The mission’s nephelometer is equipped with a UV laser that will shine light into the dense Venusian clouds to see if any atmospheric particles fluoresce—or glow—a reaction that would strongly suggest the presence of organic compounds, which are key ingredients for life. These carbon-bearing compounds would not provide smoking-gun evidence of alien microbes, because organics can be produced abiotically, but they would still reveal unprecedented details about Venus’ habitability.
“Evidence of organic molecules will be a game changer because all life needs complex organic chemistry,” said Sara Seager, a leading planetary scientist at MIT who co-authored the new study and is the principal investigator on the nephelometer, in an email. “This will change the current paradigm that the sulfuric acid droplets are sterile to potential biochemicals and push the idea forward that the Venus cloud droplets—incredibly harsh for any Earth life—could be habitable to life based on a different biochemistry.”
“In addition to fluorescence the nephelometer will measure the backscattered polarized radiation, information used to constrain the composition and shape of the particles,” she continued. “If we can confirm past measurements that indicate some cloud particles are non-spherical, i.e. not liquid, it affirms the possibility that some particles are not made of liquid concentrated sulfuric acid and therefore could be more habitable to life as we know it than previously thought.”
Beyond this tantalizing science goal, the mission could pave the way toward a new and more affordable mode of deep space exploration and build on the company’s recent efforts to go further afield in space.
“What interests me most is learning that we can go to so many other places,” French said. “We have a spacecraft in cislunar space right now from the CAPSTONE mission. We have two in production for the ESCAPADE mission to orbit Mars. And we will enter a probe at Venus with this mission.”
“But the inner solar system is full of unexplored places: the moons of Mars, near Earth objects, asteroids, the plasma environment connecting the Earth to the Sun, and even interstellar objects,” he concluded. “Those places are all now within our reach—we just have to choose to go.”