The First Private Spacecraft to Venus Will Look for Life in Its Clouds

Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, talks about the company’s planned Venus shot, which is due for launch in 2023.
May 14, 2021, 1:00pm
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Venus, the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon, has enchanted skywatchers for thousands of years. 

Since the dawn of the space age, probes have revealed that the planet may be radiant from the outside, but it is a nightmarish hellscape of searing temperatures and crippling pressures on the ground. Despite that surface inhospitality, scientists have long speculated that life might exist in the balmy Venusian clouds, spurring efforts to send ever more advanced probes to the tantalizing world. 

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Peter Beck, CEO of the aerospace company Rocket Lab, is part of this long tradition of space dreamers intent on understanding Venus, but his team is also breaking with past conventions of interplanetary exploration in a major way. So far, only spacecraft developed by governmental agencies have visited Venus, but Rocket Lab has ambitious plans to launch the first private robotic mission to our sister planet in 2023.

“The mission is to path-find and it's also to show that this can be done,” Beck said on Motherboard’s Space Show. “I do believe that if we can demonstrate this, it fundamentally does change the way that we need to think about doing planetary science.”

This possibility that Venus might host aliens became increasingly topical in the wake of a 2020 study that claimed to detect a chemical associated with microbial life in the planet’s atmosphere. While the study’s conclusions have generated heated debate, the outside chance that Venus might be habitable to microbes—so long they stay well clear of the surface—has underscored the many compelling reasons to explore this world. 

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Rocket Lab intends to add to this effort with its unprecedented commercial mission. The company will use its Electron rocket and its Photon satellite to get to Venus, where the spacecraft will drop off a smaller probe that will rapidly descend through the planet’s atmosphere. 

In addition to pioneering a new form of interplanetary commercial exploration, Beck hopes the mission will shed light on the ultimate question: Is life unique in the universe?

“I always promised myself that if I ever had the ability to try to answer that question, that I would give it a shot, no matter how low or remote the probable outcomes could be,” he said. “I’m in a very fortunate position, now, that I have a rocket company and an interplanetary spacecraft, so it would seem very rude not to give this a crack.”  

For more about this Venus mission, Rocket Lab, and why Beck recently decided to publicly eat his own hat, check out Motherboard’s latest Space Show interview.