Elon Musk wants to settle humans on Mars with his rocket company SpaceX. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wants a trillion people living in space. But space exploration, the chief executive of a private space company, is coming in a different way, and now aims to play a role in the pursuit of life for Venus.
On Monday, scientists announced the surprising discovery of phosphine in Venus’s atmosphere. This chemical could have been produced by a biological source, but scientists would not know for sure without sending a spacecraft to the planet.
As luck would have it, Rocket Lab, a private small rocket company established in New Zealand, is working on such a mission. The company has developed a small satellite called Photon, which plans to launch on its own electron rocket as soon as 2023.
Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said, “It’s the mission that we can have life and see.” “Obviously, this discovery of phosphine actually increases that possibility. So, I think we need to go there. “
Rocket Lab has launched a dozen rockets into space, bringing small satellites into orbit for private companies, NASA and the US military. It is also a mission to the Moon in working with NASA, called CAPSTONE, which was scheduled to launch in early 2021.
The company began looking into the possibility of a mission to Venus last year before it knew about the discovery of phosphine. Although its electron rocket is much smaller than that used by SpaceX and other competitors, it can send Venus a space probe.
The company plans to develop the mission-in-house and is mostly built at a cost of ten-million dollars. It is seeking other partners to reduce costs. The Photon spacecraft was a small, 660-pound satellite Its first test flight in class this month, Will launch when Earth and Venus align for the shortest journey, and arrive there in several months.
The spacecraft would be designed to take measurements and photographs instead of flying and entering Venus’s orbit. But it would be able to issue a small probe weighing 82 pounds into the planet’s atmosphere, taking readings and looking for further evidence of life.
The probe would enter the atmosphere at a speed of about 6 miles per second, Mr. Beck said, falling from the skies of Venus without a parachute. As it passes through the region in the atmosphere where phosphine was discovered and airborne microorganisms could exist, it will take readings and take them back to Earth via a photon spacecraft before being destroyed.
Rocket Lab is working with scientists on which scientific instruments can carry out investigations and spacecraft, including Sarah Seeger from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the researchers involved in the discovery of phosphine. While there may be only one device in the investigation, there is much that can accomplish this.
Dr. Seeger said they could put an infrared spectrometer or “some kind of gas analyzer” on board to confirm the presence of phosphine and measure other gases.
“Looking for other gases that are not expected can also be a sign of life,” she said.
Dr. Seeger is also part of the team working with Breakthrough Initiatives, which is funded by Russian investor Yuri Milner. Over the next six months, his team will study what small, medium and large missions can be sent on Venus in the near future to see life.
Rocket Lab has a modest mission that can achieve this. The probe will not last long and is unlikely to have a camera, meaning that its scientific returns will also be meaningful.
NASA is considering a pair of larger missions to Venus, called DAVINCI +, the second Veritas, and each will have many more capabilities.
“When you spend 100 times more on a payload, you’ll get more science from it,” said Colin Wilson of the University of Oxford, part of a proposed European Venus orbiter called Envision that aims to launch in 2032.
However, the trade-off is momentum. Rocket Lab can rapidly develop its mission, and is set to launch years before government space agencies. And although its smaller mission may lack sophisticated capabilities, it would become the first mission designed to enter the Venusian environment since the Soviet Union’s Vega 2 in 1985, producing significant new data.
“There’s just so much good science to do that we can’t do it all,” said ESA senior science and exploration consultant Mark McCopran. “If other players come and say we can go and do that, then I have no problem with that problem.”
With yesterday’s announcement of phosphine, Rocket Lab’s mission now has the exciting potential to contribute to a major scientific discovery, and changing how researchers discover planets. NASA sent astronauts to the moon. SpaceX wants to land humans on Mars. Is Rocket Lab Claiming Venus?
“No,” Mr. Beck said with a laugh. “Venus is very attractive. But as far as claiming the planets is concerned, I am not interested in it. “