Rocket Lab she doesn’t want to be an amateur Venus.
The California-based company aims to launch a private mission to Venus in 2023 hunting for signs of life in the clouds where only scientists identified the possible phosphine gas biosignature. But this fundamental effort will only be the beginning, if all goes according to plan.
“We don’t want to do a mission, we want to do many, many missions there,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck told Space.com on Monday (Sept. 14), hours after the scientists. unveiled the discovery of Venus’ phosphine.
Related: The clouds of Venus join the shortlist for potential signs of life in our solar system
A long-standing dream
Beck had long wanted to help explore Venus, which in his opinion has not yet received the scientific attention it deserves.
“Venus is really undervalued,”
Venus was once a temperate world like the Earth, with abundant surface water – including, according to many scientists, the great oceans that may have persisted for much of the planet’s 4.5 billion years of history.
But a runaway greenhouse effect eventually took hold on the second rock from the sun, causing Venus’s water to leak and transform its surface into the burnt, high-pressure hell landscape it is today. And “Hellscape” isn’t really an exaggeration: surface temperatures on Venus hover around 872 degrees Fahrenheit (467 degrees Celsius), hot enough to melt lead.
Learn exactly what happened to Venus and why it is of great interest to planetary scientists. And the evolution of the planet serves as a kind of warning to the Earth, where human activity ushered in a period of dramatic warming, Beck noted.
Then there is the astrobiological potential of Venus, which may not be limited to the ancient past. Although the planet’s surface has gone hellish, researchers think about pocket of potential habitability remained high in the clouds, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) high, and has survived to the present day. Up there, temperatures and pressures are quite similar to those found on Earth at sea level (although Venusian clouds are mostly made of sulfuric acid rather than water vapor).
That cloud layer is where a team of scientists recently spotted the fingerprint of phosphine, a gas that here on Earth is only produced by microbes and human activity, as far as we know. And it is the environment that Rocket Lab wants to probe with that 2023 mission and its hoped-for successors.
Related: Photo of Venus, the mysterious planet next door
The next Venus mission will use two Rocket Lab hardware components: the 57 feet tall (17 meters) Electron booster, which has launched small satellites into orbit since early 2018, and the Photon satellite bus, which made its debut in space flight on an Electron mission late last month.
A Photon will be launched atop an Electron, then it will head towards Venus on a flyby trajectory. When the Photon approaches, it will deploy a probe into the Venusian atmosphere. By the way, this won’t be Photon’s first trip beyond Earth’s orbit; NASA has booked Electron and Photon a fly a small satellite to the moon in early 2021.
“The probe is aimed at some kind of angle of entry that maximizes the amount of time in those 50 kilometers[-high] region of interest, “Beck said. Even though the Venus inlet probe” will reach very high temperatures “at around 24,600 mph (39,600 km / h),” we have a reasonable amount of time in that really interesting area, “he added.
The probe will not be carried by a balloon, like the Soviet Venera missions that plied the skies of Venus in the 1980s. It will be more like the four small drop craft successfully deployed in the atmosphere of Venus by NASA Pioneer Venus Multiprobe mission in 1978, Beck said.
“We’re taking a lot of inspiration from some of that probe project,” he said.
The goal is to look for signs of life in the potentially habitable zone of Venus’s air. And Rocket Lab is already talking to scientists about the best ways to do this, including team members who have spotted phosphine in the planet’s clouds. (To be clear: this phosphine is a potential, unconfirmed sign of alien life. Further work is needed to determine which processes generate the gas.)
“We talked to them. And they are amazing, to be so flexible,” MIT planetary scientist Sara Seager, one of the world’s leading experts on biosignature gases, said Monday at the phosphine announcement press conference.
Rocket Lab’s inlet probe will likely tip the scale to about 82 pounds. (37 kilograms), Beck said. Approximately 6.6 lbs. (3 kg) of that would be devoted to scientific payload, according to Seager.
“So, you’d have to work hard to make sure a useful life-finding tool fits that payload,” Seager said. “And we can’t wait to do it.”
Related: 6 most likely places for alien life in the solar system
An exploration campaign?
Rocket Lab’s Venus plans were in the works long before the company started talking to Seager and his colleagues, Beck said. The phosphine detection hasn’t changed much, other than strengthening his resolve and increasing his optimism.
“I used to think the likelihood of finding something interesting was incredibly low, but now I think the likelihood of finding something interesting is much improved, given the phosphine,” he said. “But even just to take a on site I think the measurement of phosphine is extremely important scientifically “.
Electron and Photon are practically ready for the 2023 mission, Beck said, noting that Photon will demonstrate its good faith in deep space on NASA’s lunar mission next year. Most of the work that still needs to be done concerns the development of the atmospheric probe and its scientific instrumentation.
Beck is confident that Rocket Lab can get everything ready for a launch in just three years. And this will be an important milestone: a private life-hunting mission, developed and launched in a few years for a total cost of $ 10 million to $ 20 million.
Compare that to NASA’s low-cost Discovery program of robotic space missions, which mandates a cost limit of $ 450 million, excluding launch. (Two of the four Discovery mission candidates in the final round of selection would have explored Venus, by the way. Nor is it a life-hunting effort, although one of them, named DAVINCI +, would send a probe through the Venusian atmosphere.)
Rocket Lab plans to pay the full amount for the 2023 mission. But Beck said he would like to “do a bunch more” Venus missions and would certainly be open to collaborating with a variety of partners – a prospect that could get a great impetus from the discovery of phosphine.
“To be honest with you, Venus has always been something that, traditionally, it’s relatively hard to get too many people excited about,” Beck said.
“With this announcement, I certainly hope that more attention and more energy goes to Venus, which will create more opportunities for scientists and tool developers to look more closely and carefully at what we want to do.”
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.