Never let it be said that Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck doesn’t have a bright streak.
Although its Electron launch vehicle is one of the smallest orbital rockets in the world, Beck gets all the performance out of the booster he can. In the second launch of the rocket, in January 2018, I added a geodesic sphere-like disco ball called the “Star of Humanity” to give people a small and bright object they could look at, if only briefly, in the night sky.
“The whole point of the program is to get everyone to look at the star, and at the same time go past the star into the Universe and think about the fact that we are somehow, on a planet.” I said on time.
In interviews since then, Beck has made no secret of his love for Venus, humanity’s closest planet. The surface of this infernal planet is a miasma of carbon dioxide, crushing pressures and fiery temperatures. But scientists believe that above this monstrous surface, the clouds of Venus have air pressures not unlike those found on Earth, where conditions may be favorable for some life forms.
So Peter Beck wants to use the small Electron rocket, which has a height of 18 meters and can launch all of about 300 kg into low Earth orbit.
On Tuesday evening, Rocket Lab announced that it will self-fund the development and launch of a small spacecraft that will send a small probe through the clouds of Venus at an altitude of 48-60 km for about 5 minutes. Beck teamed up with several renowned planetary scientists, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sarah Seager, to design the mission.
Electron will launch the spacecraft into an orbit 165 km above Earth, where the rocket’s high-energy Photon upper stage will perform a series of burns to raise the spacecraft to orbit and reach escape velocity. Assuming a May 2023 launch—with a January 2025 fallback—the spacecraft will reach Venus in October 2023. Once there, Photon will place a small, approximately 20 kg probe into Venus’ atmosphere.
Deep space probes with a 1 kg science payload consisting of the spacecraft, an autofluorescence nephelometer, an instrument for detecting particles suspended in clouds, will become smaller and smaller. The goal is to search for organic chemicals in clouds and investigate their viability. The probe will spend about 5 minutes and 30 seconds descending into the upper atmosphere and then ideally continue transmitting data as it descends toward the surface.
“The mission is the first opportunity in nearly four decades to directly study cloud particles on Venus,” one paper notes. was published this week, describes the architecture of the mission. “Even with mass and data rate limitations and limited time in the Venusian atmosphere, a scientific breakthrough is possible.”
Smaller rockets, cheaper missions
In recent years, scientists and engineers at NASA, as well as in academia and industry, they looked to the side the miniaturization of satellite technology and an abundance of smaller, cheaper rockets to expand the capabilities of robotic exploration of the Solar System. NASA reached a significant milestone in 2018 when a pair of CubeSats built by the space agency launched alongside the InSight mission. In space, the small MarCO-A and MarCO-B satellites deployed their solar arrays, stabilized, orbited the Sun, and then traveled to Mars.
However, a small privately designed mission to Venus would represent another step entirely. No private company has sent a spacecraft directly to another world in the Solar System beyond the Moon. This highly ambitious effort may fail. So why not try? That seems to be Beck’s attitude.
Rocket Lab is currently directly funding the launch and spacecraft, which will likely cost several tens of millions of dollars. “There is some philanthropic funding in the works for various aspects of the mission, but it’s too early to discuss that in detail at this time,” company spokeswoman Morgan Bailey said.
So this is Beck’s big, game-changing bet on his little Electron rocket. Earlier this year, he and his company already To be a CAPSTONE mission To the Moon for NASA and Advanced Space. If Beck succeeds in his mission to Venus, he will certainly attract the attention of scientists, NASA and those interested in what could be a promising new era of cheaper, faster exploration of the Solar System.