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 the CEO of a private space company approaches space exploration differently and now aims to play a role in the search for life on Venus.
On Monday, scientists announced the astonishing discovery of phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere. This chemical could have been produced by a biological source, but scientists do not know for sure without sending a spacecraft to the planet.
As luck would have it, Rocket Lab, the private small rocket company founded in New Zealand, has been working on such a mission. The company has developed a small satellite, called Photon, which it plans to launch on its own electron rocket as soon as in 2023.
Rocket Lab has launched a dozen rockets into space and put small satellites into orbit for private companies, NASA and the US military. It also has a mission to the moon in works with NASA, called CAPSTONE, scheduled to launch in early 2021.
The company began investigating the possibility of a mission to Venus last year before knowing about the phosphine discovery. Although its electron rocket is much smaller than those used by SpaceX and other competitors, it can send a space probe to Venus.
The company’s plan is to develop the mission internally and mostly self-finance it at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. It seeks other partners to bear the costs. The Photon spacecraft, a small 660-pound satellite that had its first test flight into orbit this month, would take off when Earth and Venus adjusted for the shortest journey and arrived there in several months.
The spacecraft will be designed to fly past Venus and take measurements and images instead of entering orbit. But it will be able to release a small probe weighing 82 pounds into the planet’s atmosphere, take readings and look for further evidence of life.
The probe would enter the atmosphere at about 6 miles per second, Mr Beck said, falling through Venus’ sky without a parachute. As it moves through the region of the atmosphere where phosphine was discovered and airborne microbial life could be present, it would take readings and radiate them back to Earth via the Photon spacecraft before being destroyed.
Rocket Lab is working with scientists on what scientific instruments the probe and spacecraft can carry, including Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the researchers involved in the discovery of phosphine. Although the probe could probably only carry a single instrument, there is much it could accomplish.
Dr. Seager said they could probably 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. Seager is also part of a team working on Breakthrough Initiatives, funded by Yuri Milner, the Russian investor. Over the next six months, her team will investigate what kind of small, medium and large missions can be sent to Venus in the near future to search for life.
Rocket Lab’s modest mission is limited in what it can accomplish. The probe will not survive long, and it probably will not have a camera, which means that its scientific return will be short, even if it makes sense.
NASA is considering a couple of larger missions for Venus, one called DAVINCI +, the other VERITAS, and each will have many more options.
“When you spend 100 times more on a payload, you get more science out of it,” said Colin Wilson of the University of Oxford, part of a proposed European Venus orbiter called EnVision, which aims to launch in 2032. .
The trade-off, however, is speed. Rocket Lab could quickly develop their mission and be ready to launch years before the public space organizations. And while its small mission may lack sophisticated capabilities, it would become the first mission designed to enter the Venusian atmosphere since the Soviet Union’s Vega 2 in 1985, providing important new data.
“There’s just so much good science to do that we can not do it all,” said Mark McCaughrean, senior science and research adviser at ESA. “So if other players come in and say we can go and do this, I don’t see any problem with that.”
With yesterday’s phosphine announcement, Rocket Lab’s mission now has the exciting prospect of contributing to greater scientific discovery and changing the way scientists conduct planetary exploration. NASA sent astronauts to the Moon. SpaceX wants to land humans on Mars. Does Rocket Lab file a claim on Venus?
“No,” said Mr. Beck with a laugh. “Venus is enormously alluring. But as far as I claim planets, that’s not what I’m interested in. ”