Rocket Lab sets sights on 2024-2025 window for Venus mission

Return to flight followed by a trip to Venus

Rocket Lab's launch window for its long-awaited mission to Venus opens at the end of 2024 and stretches into 2025.

A spokesperson told The Register that a precise launch date had yet to be set, but the company now has a period to work towards.

The confirmation comes after the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave the company authorization to resume launches in October following an in-flight anomaly in September that resulted in the loss of the payload.

While the full review is not yet complete, the issue, which occurred shortly after the second stage ignition, appears to be related to the second stage of the Electron rocket.

Venus is of particular interest to the company's founder and CEO, Peter Beck. In 2020, he told The Register that he hoped to launch a mission in 2023. In 2022, the company was still aiming for May 2023, but that date came and went, leaving what was originally the backup date – January 2025 – as the current target.

Rocket Lab's spokesperson confirmed that the instrument carried in the spacecraft's payload would be tasked with detecting phosphine in the planet's atmosphere, a possible indicator of organic matter.

The expedition is being conducted in collaboration with Professor Sara Seager from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Seager's Morning Star consortium has teamed with Rocket Lab for the first mission and has published some ambitious concepts for subsequent explorations, including an atmospheric and cloud sample return mission in the 2040s.

There is currently no indication that Rocket Lab will be involved in any follow-up missions. However, the 2025 trip is all about hunting for signs of life in the clouds of Venus by detecting organic chemistry.

An atmospheric probe weighing approximately 20 kg will be sent from Rocket Lab's Photon spacecraft into the planet's atmosphere. The sole instrument on the probe will be an Autofluorescence Nephelometer (AFN), weighing in at less than one kilo.

With luck, the five-minute data collection lifespan of the probe will be enough to meet the scientific objectives – a search for organic material and anomalous cloud components, including aspherical particles.

Seager told The Register: "Very little data is collected as we have limited bandwidth for our direct communication to Earth. We aim to detect fluorescence and are spending only 5 minutes taking data in the cloud layers. After launch the probe will reach Venus in May 2025 and it will take us a few months to analyze the data."

According to the Morning Star consortium: "Aspherical particles are not pure liquid and therefore cannot be pure sulfuric acid. Constraining particle composition can support evidence of habitable conditions inside cloud particles."

Launched atop an Electron, the Photon has already taken a trip to the Moon. A Lunar Photon upper stage sent NASA's Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) CubeSat on transfer orbit to the Moon in 2022. However, Venus has always been Beck's goal.

In 2022, he told The Register that there were few differences between the Lunar Photon and the Venus Photon. He said: "We designed it to go to Venus."

"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."

As well as being challenging, the Venus trip also represents a first, being a private interplanetary undertaking – albeit with a public-private partnership at its core. Beck told us in 2020 that he intended to iterate the payload as results came in, launching a multitude of lighter, cheaper spacecraft rather than the hefty billion-dollar beasts often favored by national space agencies.

Seager, who has worked toward this mission since summer 2020 - when things were still in a concept study phase - told The Register that success would be defined by: "Successful entry into the Venus atmosphere. Detection of fluorescence (if it exists). Measurements of backscattered polarized radiation. And motivation for the next mission."

There is no word on what Rocket Lab's involvement might be in future missions, and Seager told us that something a bit more powerful than the Electron would likely be needed, but for now scheduling a launch window is sure sign that things are moving in the right direction. ®

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