Never let it be said that Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck lacks a flamboyant streak.
Although his Electron launch vehicle is one of the smallest orbital rockets in the world, Beck gleans every bit of performance from the booster he can. On just the rocket’s second launch, in January 2018, he added a disco-ball like geodesic sphere called “Humanity Star” to give humans a small and bright shining object to, however briefly, gaze upon in the night sky.
“The whole point of the program is to get everybody looking up at the star, but also past the star into the Universe, and reflect about the fact that we're one species, on one planet,” he said at the time.
In interviews since then Beck has made no secret of his love for humanity’s next-closest world, Venus. The surface of that hell-planet is a miasma of carbon dioxide, crushing pressures, and fiery temperatures. But scientists believe that high above that terrible surface, in the clouds of Venus, there are air pressures not dissimilar to those found on Earth, where conditions might be conducive for some forms of life.
And so Peter Beck wants to use his small Electron rocket, which stands but 18 meters tall and can throw all of about 300 kg into low Earth orbit, to find out.
On Tuesday evening Rocket Lab announced that it will self-fund the development of a small spacecraft, and its launch, that will send a tiny probe flying through the clouds of Venus for about 5 minutes, at an altitude of 48 to 60 km. Beck has joined up with several noted planetary scientists, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sara Seager, to design this mission.
Electron will deliver the spacecraft into a 165 km orbit above Earth, where the rocket’s high-energy Photon upper stage will perform a number of burns to raise the spacecraft’s orbit and reach escape velocity. Assuming a May 2023 launch—there is a backup opportunity in January 2025—the spacecraft would reach Venus in October 2023. Once there, Photon would deploy a small, approximately 20 kg probe into the Venusian atmosphere.
The spacecraft will be tiny, as deep-space probes go, containing a 1 kg scientific payload consisting of an autofluorescing nephelometer, which is an instrument to detect suspended particles in the clouds. The goal is to search for organic chemicals in the clouds and explore their habitability. The probe will spend about 5 minutes and 30 seconds falling through the upper atmosphere, and then ideally continue transmitting data as it descends further toward the surface.
“The mission is the first opportunity to probe the Venus cloud particles directly in nearly four decades,” states a paper, published this week , describing the mission architecture. “Even with the mass and data rate constraints and the limited time in the Venus atmosphere, breakthrough science is possible.”
Smaller rockets, cheaper missions
In recent years scientists and engineers at NASA, as well as in academia and industry, have been looking toward the miniaturization of satellite technology, and profusion of smaller, less expensive rockets, to broaden the possibilities for robotic exploration of the Solar System. NASA achieved a significant milestone in 2018 when a pair of CubeSats built by the space agency launched along with the InSight mission. In space, the small MarCO-A and MarCO-B satellites deployed their own solar arrays, stabilized themselves, pivoted toward the Sun, and then journeyed to Mars.
However, a privately developed and launched small mission to Venus would represent another step entirely. No private company has ever sent a spacecraft directly to another world in the Solar System beyond the Moon. This highly ambitious effort may fail. But why not try? That seems to be Beck’s attitude.
Rocket Lab is currently funding the launch and spacecraft directly, which likely costs a few tens of millions of dollars. “There is some philanthropic funding in the works for different mission aspects, but too early to discuss this in detail at the moment,” said Morgan Bailey, a spokeswoman for the company.
So this is a big, game-changing bet by Beck on his small Electron rocket. Earlier this year, he and his company already sent the CAPSTONE mission to the Moon for NASA and Advanced Space. If Beck succeeds with a Venus mission, he’ll certainly catch the attention of scientists, NASA, and others interested in what would be a promising new era of low-cost, more rapid exploration of the Solar System.
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