Rocket Lab to search for signs of life in the clouds of Venus
As promised, Peter Beck is sending a Photon next year. Because he can
Rocket Lab's Peter Beck is sending a Photon spacecraft carrying a small probe to Venus, marking the culmination of a childhood ambition for the CEO.
The private mission is due to launch next May, with an Electron rocket carrying the Photon spacecraft and probe into Earth orbit. The plan is to carry out a Trans Venus Injection on May 24, 2023, after a number of sequential phasing orbits around Earth and a lunar gravity assist.
The company demonstrated its prowess at this with the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission for NASA.
The Photon will act as the cruise stage and deploy the probe (which can accommodate a single ~1kg instrument) into the atmosphere. The science mission of the probe will last approximately five minutes as it passes through the Venus cloud layers at 48-60km above the planet's surface.
"We have chosen a low-mass, low-cost autofluorescing nephelometer to search for organic molecules in the cloud particles and constrain the particle composition," noted the team.
It'll be one heck of a ride. The probe's payload is designed to search for organic chemicals in the cloud particles and explore the habitability of the clouds.
The probe will enter the clouds approximately 180 seconds after entry interface and emerge around 330 seconds later. It will be able to continue transmitting science data for another 20 minutes or so before being overwhelmed by the pressure of the atmosphere. Shortly after it will hit the surface.
Rocket Lab has been working on the mission for while now. In 2020, The Register spoke to Beck about his plans for studying the planet. Work had been in progress before astronomers published results hinting at signs of life in the atmosphere of Venus. It has continued even after the study's findings began to look a little shaky, with scientists saying their results theorising that phosphine gas was present may have been skewed by the antenna of a telescope used to discover it.
The reason for the effort is simple: Beck wants to go the Venus. And not just once; he wants to eventually send a flotilla of spacecraft with a variety of instruments rather than just one big one with a highly complicated payload once every few decades.
- NASA doubles down on Venus missions, asking what made the planet uninhabitable
- Remember life on Venus? One of the telescopes had 'an undesirable side effect' that could kill off the whole idea
- Not the Southern Rail of the stars: Rocket Lab plans frequent, regular trips to Venus from 2023
- Howdy, er, neighbor – mind if we join you? Potential sign of life spotted in Venus's atmosphere
"The difference between the Lunar Photon and the Venus Photon is not a lot," Beck told us. "I mean, we designed it to go to Venus."
Of the mission, Beck said: "It is a very, very challenging mission and it's very inspirational to go and look for life, but if you have the resources to do it then it's just unacceptable to not try.
"When I was very young, my father took me outside, pointed out a shooting star and said 'that was made by humans down on Earth.'
"And the kind of natural follow-on question from a kid of a few years old was, well, 'are all the stars out there made by people on Earth?'
"And you know the answer was, of course, 'No - there are Suns, they have planets around them, and there could be somebody staring back asking the same question.'
"And that's a mind-blowing moment.
"That question has hung with me my entire life: are we alone? Is life in the universe unique? Or is it prolific?
"If life is in the clouds of Venus, it's a pure assumption to make that life is prolific throughout the universe... and that kind of answers the question that I had a long time ago."
It is hard not applaud Beck and Rocket Lab's determination and the fact that having set a May 2023 target in 2020, the company appears to have stuck to it (unusual for the delays that are rife in the space business).
That said, there is also a backup launch window in January 2025. ®