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 gets all the performance out of the booster he can. On the rocket’s second launch alone, in January 2018, he added a disco ball-like geodesic sphere called “Humanity Star” to give people a small and bright shining object to gaze at the night sky, however briefly. .
“The whole purpose of the program is to get everyone to look up to the star, but also past the star in the universe, and think about the fact that we are one species, on one planet,” he said at the time.
Since then, Beck has made no secret of his love for humanity’s closest world, Venus, in interviews. 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 no different from those on Earth, where conditions may be conducive to some forms of life.
And so Peter Beck wants to use his tiny Electron rocket, which is only 18 meters high and can throw about 300 kg into low Earth orbit, to find out.
On Tuesday evening, Rocket Lab announced that it will fund the development of a small spacecraft itself, and its launch, which will send a small probe that will fly through the clouds of Venus for about 5 minutes, at an altitude of 48 to 60 km. Beck has collaborated with several well-known planetary scientists, including Professor Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to design this mission.
Electron will launch the spacecraft into orbit 165 km above Earth, where the rocket’s high-energy Photon upper stage will perform a series of burns to increase the spacecraft’s orbit and achieve escape velocity. Assuming a launch in May 2023 – there is a backup possibility in January 2025 – the spacecraft would reach Venus in October 2023. Once there, Photon would place a small probe weighing about 20 kg in Venus’ atmosphere.
The spacecraft will be small, like space probes use, with a scientific payload of 1 kg, consisting of an autofluorescent nephelometer, 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 drop through the upper atmosphere for about 5 minutes and 30 seconds, then ideally continue to transmit data as it continues to descend to the surface.
“The mission is the first opportunity to directly examine the particles of the Venus cloud in nearly four decades,” says a paper published this week describing the mission architecture. “Even with the limitations of mass and data rate and the limited time in the atmosphere of Venus, groundbreaking science is possible.”
Smaller missiles, cheaper missions
In recent years, scientists and engineers at NASA, as well as in academia and industry, have looked to the miniaturization of satellite technology and a plethora of smaller, cheaper rockets to broaden the possibilities for robotic exploration of the solar system. NASA reached a major milestone in 2018 when a pair of CubeSats built by the space agency were launched along with the InSight mission. In space, the tiny MarCO-A and MarCO-B satellites deployed their own solar panels, stabilized themselves, orbited the sun and then traveled to Mars.
However, a privately developed and launched small mission to Venus would be an entirely new step. No private company has ever sent a spacecraft directly to another world in the solar system beyond the moon. This very ambitious effort may fail. But what not to try? That seems to be Beck’s attitude.
Rocket Lab is currently directly funding the launch and spacecraft, which is likely to cost several tens of millions of dollars. “There is some philanthropic funding in the works for various mission aspects, but it’s too early at this point to discuss this in detail,” said Morgan Bailey, a company spokeswoman.
So this is a big, groundbreaking bet from Beck on his little 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 on a Venus mission, he’s sure to grab the attention of scientists, NASA, and others interested in what would be a promising new era of inexpensive, faster solar system exploration.