Never let it be said that Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck lacks a flashy streak.
Although the electron launch vehicle is one of the smallest orbital rockets in the world, Beck reaps every bit of performance he can from the booster. On the rocket’s second launch in January 2018, it added a disco ball-like geodesic sphere called the “Humanity Star” to give people a small, bright object that they could glimpse in the night sky.
“The whole point of the program is to get everyone to look at the star, but also to transport the star to the Universe and reflect on the fact that we are one species on one planet.” said In that case.
In interviews since then, Beck has not hidden his love for Venus, humanity’s next closest world. The surface of this hellish planet is a miasma of carbon dioxide, crushing pressures, and fiery temperatures. But scientists believe that above this dreadful surface, in the clouds of Venus, there are air pressures that are not different from those found on Earth, where conditions may be favorable for some forms of life.
And that’s why Peter Beck wants to use his little Electron rocket, which stands 18 meters tall and can launch nearly 300kg all into low Earth orbit, to find out.
On Tuesday evening, Rocket Lab announced that it will self-finance the development and launch of a small spacecraft that will send a small probe that flies through the clouds of Venus for about 5 minutes at an altitude of 48 to 60 km. Beck teamed up with several renowned planetary scientists, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sara Seager, to design this mission.
Electron will launch the spacecraft into a 165km orbit above Earth, where the rocket’s high-energy Photon upper stage will perform a series of burns to elevate the spacecraft’s orbit and reach escape velocity. Assuming a May 2023 launch—there is a backup opportunity in January 2025—the spacecraft would reach Venus in October 2023. Once there, Photon would insert a small probe weighing about 20kg into the Venusian atmosphere.
The spacecraft will be small as deep space probes progress, containing a 1kg scientific payload of an autofluorescent nephelometer, a tool for detecting suspended particles in clouds. The goal is to search for organic chemicals in the clouds and discover their habitability. The probe will spend approximately 5 minutes and 30 seconds falling into the upper atmosphere and then ideally continue transmitting data as it descends towards the surface.
“The mission is the first opportunity to directly probe Venus cloud particles in nearly four decades,” says one article. published this week, describing the mission architecture. “Even with mass and data rate constraints and limited time in the Venusian atmosphere, groundbreaking science is possible.”
Smaller rockets, cheaper missions
In recent years, scientists and engineers at NASA, as well as academia and industry, they were looking right Miniaturization of satellite technology and a plethora of smaller, cheaper rockets to expand the possibilities of robotic exploration of the Solar System. NASA reached a major milestone with the launch in 2018 of a pair of space agency-built CubeSats along with the InSight mission. In space, the tiny MarCO-A and MarCO-B satellites deployed their solar arrays, stabilized themselves, turned toward the Sun, and then went to Mars.
However, a small mission specifically developed and launched to Venus would represent another step entirely. No private company has ever sent a spacecraft directly to another world beyond the Moon in the Solar System. This extremely ambitious effort may fail. But what not to try? This seems to be Beck’s attitude.
Rocket Lab is currently directly funding the launch and spacecraft, likely costing several tens of millions of dollars. “There is some charitable funding in the works for different mission aspects, but it’s too early to discuss this in detail at this time,” said company spokesperson Morgan Bailey.
This is Beck’s big, game-changing bet on the little Electron rocket. Earlier this year, he and his company were already CAPSTONE sent his post To the Moon for NASA and Advanced Space. If Beck succeeds in a Venus mission, it will certainly catch the attention of scientists, NASA, and others interested in what will be a promising new era of low-cost, faster exploration of the Solar System.