Never let anyone tell you that Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck lacked an extravagant streak.
Despite his electron launcher being one of the smallest orbital vehicles in the world, Beck gets every booster boost he can. Right on the rocket’s second launch in January 2018, he added a disco ball-like geodesic sphere called “Humanity Star” to give people a small and brightly glowing object to glimpse, albeit briefly, into the night sky.
“The whole point of the program is to get everyone to look up at the star, but also look past the star at the universe, and think that we are one species on one planet.” he said back then.
Since then, Beck has made no secret of his love for humanity’s next world, Venus, in interviews. The surface of this infernal planet is a miasma of carbon dioxide, crushing pressure, and fiery temperatures. But scientists believe that high above that horrid surface, Venus’ clouds hold air pressures not dissimilar to those on Earth, where conditions could be conducive to some life forms.
And so Peter Beck wants to find out with his small electron rocket, which is just 18 meters high and can hurl around 300 kilograms into a near-Earth orbit.
On Tuesday night, Rocket Lab announced that it will self-fund the development and launch of a small spacecraft that will fly a tiny probe through the clouds of Venus at an altitude of 30 to 40 miles for about 5 minutes. Beck partnered with several well-known planetary scientists, including Sara Seager, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to design this mission.
Electron will launch the spacecraft into orbit 100 miles (165 km) above Earth, where the rocket’s high-energy photon upper stage will perform a series of burns to raise the spacecraft’s orbit and achieve an escape velocity. Assuming a launch in May 2023 – there is a backup possibility in January 2025 – the spacecraft would reach Venus in October 2023. Once there, Photon would deploy a small probe, weighing about 20 kg, into Venus’ atmosphere.
Tiny compared to spacecraft, the spacecraft will carry a 1kg science payload consisting of an autofluorescent nephelometer, an instrument used to detect suspended particles in the clouds. The aim is to look for organic chemicals in the clouds and to research their habitability. The probe spends about 5 minutes and 30 seconds falling through the upper atmosphere, and then ideally continues to transmit data as it descends further towards the surface.
“The mission is the first opportunity to directly study the particles of the Venusian cloud in almost four decades,” says a publication. released this week, which describes the mission architecture. “Even with the mass and data rate limitations and limited time in Venus’ atmosphere, breakthrough science is possible.”
Smaller missiles, cheaper missions
In recent years, scientists and engineers at NASA, as well as in academia and industry have looked the miniaturization of satellite technology and the proliferation of smaller, less expensive rockets to expand the possibilities of robotic exploration of the solar system. NASA reached a significant milestone in 2018 when a pair of CubeSats built by the space agency were launched along with the InSight mission. In space, the small satellites MarCO-A and MarCO-B deployed their own solar arrays, stabilized, turned toward the Sun, and then flew to Mars.
However, a privately developed and launched small mission to Venus would be a very different step. No private company has ever sent a spacecraft directly to another world in the solar system beyond the moon. This highly ambitious undertaking could 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 tens of millions of dollars. “There is some philanthropic funding for various aspects of the mission, but it is too early to discuss this in detail at this time,” said Morgan Bailey, a spokeswoman for the company.
So that’s a big game-changing bet by 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 Venus mission, he will surely attract the attention of scientists, NASA and others interested in a promising new era of cheap and rapid solar system exploration.