Elon Musk wants to settle humans on Mars with his rocket company SpaceX. Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, wants a trillion people living in space. But the chief executive of one private space company is approaching space exploration differently, and now aims to play a part in the search for life on Venus.
On Monday, scientists announced the astonishing discovery of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. This chemical could have been produced by a biological source, but scientists won’t know for sure without sending a spacecraft to the planet.
As luck would have it, Rocket Lab, the private small rocket company founded in New Zealand, has been working on such a mission. The company has developed a small satellite, called Photon, that it plans to launch on its own Electron rocket as soon as 2023.
“This mission is to go and see if we can find life,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and chief executive. “Obviously, this discovery of phosphine really adds strength to that possibility. So I think we need to go and have a look there.”
Rocket Lab has launched a dozen rockets to space, putting small satellites into orbit for private companies, NASA and the U.S. military. It also has a mission to the moon in the works with NASA, called CAPSTONE, scheduled to launch in early 2021.
The company began looking into the possibility of a mission to Venus last year, before it knew about the phosphine discovery. Although its Electron rocket is much smaller than the ones used by SpaceX and other competitors, it could send a space probe to Venus.
The company’s plan is to develop the mission in-house and mostly self-fund it, at a cost in the tens of millions of dollars. It is seeking other partners to defray the cost. The Photon spacecraft, a small, 660-pound satellite that had its first test flight to orbit this month, would launch when Earth and Venus align for the shortest journey, and arrive there in several months.
The spacecraft will be designed to fly past Venus and take measurements and pictures, rather than enter orbit. But it will be able to release a small probe weighing 82 pounds into the planet’s atmosphere, taking readings and looking for further evidence of life.
The probe would enter the atmosphere at about 6 miles per second, Beck said, falling through the skies of Venus with no parachute. As it travels through the region in the atmosphere where phosphine was discovered and airborne microbial life could be present, it would take readings and beam them back to Earth via the Photon spacecraft before being destroyed.
Rocket Lab is working with scientists on which scientific instruments the probe and spacecraft might carry, including Sara Seager from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the researchers involved in the discovery of phosphine. Although the probe could likely only carry a single instrument, there is a lot it could accomplish.
Seager said they could likely put an infrared spectrometer or “some kind of gas analyzer” on board to confirm the presence of phosphine and measure other gases.
“Looking for other gases that aren’t expected could also be a sign of life,” she said.
Seager is also part of a team working with Breakthrough Initiatives, which is funded by Yuri Milner, the Russian investor. Over the next six months, her team will study what sort of small, medium and large missions could be sent to Venus in the near future to look for life.
Rocket Lab’s modest mission is limited in what it can achieve. The probe will not survive long and it will likely not have a camera, meaning its scientific return will be brief even if meaningful.
NASA is considering a pair of larger missions to Venus, one called DAVINCI+, the other VERITAS, and each would have many more capabilities.
“When you spend 100 times more on a payload, then you will get more science out of it,” said Colin Wilson of the University of Oxford, who is part of a proposed European Venus orbiter called EnVision that aims to launch in 2032.
The trade-off, however, is speed. Rocket Lab could rapidly develop their mission, and be ready to launch years before government space agencies. And although its small mission may lack sophisticated capabilities, it would become the first mission designed to enter the Venusian atmosphere since the Soviet Union’s Vega 2 in 1985, yielding important new data.
“There’s just so much good science to do that we can’t do it all,” said Mark McCaughrean, senior science and exploration adviser at ESA. “So if other players come in and say we can go and do this, I don’t see any problem with that whatsoever.”
With yesterday’s phosphine announcement, Rocket Lab’s mission now has the exciting prospect of contributing to a major scientific discovery, and changing how researchers conduct planetary exploration. NASA sent astronauts to the Moon. SpaceX wants to land humans on Mars. Is Rocket Lab staking a claim for Venus?
“No,” Beck said, with a laugh. “Venus is hugely alluring. But as far as claiming planets, that’s not what I’m interested in.”
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