Rocket Lab is self-funding a mission to search for alien life in the clouds of Venus

The private space firm hopes to send a small probe to Venus by 2023.
Chris Young
Artist's impression of the Venus mission.
Artist's impression of the Venus mission.

Rocket Lab 

Rocket Lab is self-funding a mission to go to Venus in search of signs of extraterrestrial life, a report from Ars Technica reveals.

Venus's surface is a hellish landscape with crushing pressures and temperatures that make it completely uninhabitable. However, some scientists believe the clouds above Venus' surface may have conditions that are conducive to some forms of microbial life.

In fact, back in 2014, Northrop Grumman proposed sending inflatable planes to explore Venus' clouds. The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA also recently announced three separate missions to study the planet.

Now, Rocket Lab is joining in on the fun, with CEO Peter Beck having long ago set his sights on sending a mission to Earth's neighbor.

Searching for alien life in the clouds of Venus

Rocket Lab's Electron rocket recently launched a small CubeSat towards the moon for NASA's CAPSTONE mission. That mission will test a potential orbit for the space agency's lunar Gateway station. The U.S. space agency also recently contracted the company's Photon spacecraft solution to send two orbital spacecraft to Mars.

On Tuesday, August 16, Rocket Lab announced it will self-fund the development of a small spacecraft designed to deploy a tiny probe through the clouds of Venus for approximately five minutes. The probe will fly at an altitude of 48 to 60 kilometers. MIT professor Sara Seager has teamed up with MIT for the design of the mission.

Once the mission is ready to go, Rocket Lab will launch the spacecraft aboard its Electron launch vehicle into a 165 km orbit above Earth. Electron's Photon upper stage will then perform a number of burns to raise the spacecraft's orbit to escape velocity. The first potential launch window is in May 2023, and the spacecraft is expected to take approximately six months to reach its destination. Once it reaches Venus, Photon will deploy a roughly 20-kg probe into the planet's atmosphere.

The first private space mission to another planet

One of the main focuses for this mission seems to be speed — Rocket Lab will likely get its probe to Venus before NASA's 2027 VERITAS mission. As such, it will employ a relatively simple design. The spacecraft will contain a 1 kg scientific payload, which will be comprised of an autofluorescing nephelometer — an instrument that can take readings of suspended particles in clouds. Ultimately, the mission aims to find organic chemicals in the clouds.

"The mission is the first opportunity to probe the Venus cloud particles directly in nearly four decades," Rocket Lab states in a paper detailing the mission. "Even with the mass and data rate constraints and the limited time in the Venus atmosphere, breakthrough science is possible."

Rocket Lab will fund the launch and design of the space probe. If all goes as planned, it will be the first private space mission to another planet, and it will usher in a new era for lower-cost, rapidly deployed planetary exploration.

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