ORLANDO, Fla. – There is a new reason to be excited about a private robotic mission to Venus happening in less than three years after a group of researchers found possible signs of microbial life on the very hot planet.
This week an international group of astronomers, led by Professor Jane Greave with Cardiff University, published their findings of a rare molecule, phosphine, found in the clouds of Venus. This discovery is very exciting because these molecules exist on Earth, too, and are produced by microbes that survive in oxygen-free environments or human-made.
Private space company, Rocket Lab has had plans in the works to launch a spacecraft to Venus on its Electron rocket as soon as 2023. The announcement this week added to the excitement of a mission to the second planet from the sun coming up in the near future.
While many space companies and NASA are focused on getting humans to Mars Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck has always had a fascination with Venus.
“Venus is a is a very close analogue to Earth, you know, similar mass, similar size,” Beck said in a video interview from New Zealand. “But you know, it’s a planet that has had complete climate change runaway. And I think there’s a lot that we can learn from that.”
Venus is similar in size and structure to our home planet and has been nicknamed Earth’s twin. Many scientists believe water once existed there but now temperatures on the surface are up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, according to NASA.
“A relatively short time ago on the galactic scale at least, 800 million odd years, Venus was a very, very different planet than than it is today. So from a from a climate perspective, I think we have a lot to learn from Venus,” Beck said.
There are few other planets in the solar system that could have once hosted life and Beck is placing his bet on the second rock from the sun.
“Are we the only the only life forms is a huge question for humanity. And it’s not unreasonable to assume that if you can find life in the clouds of Venus, for example,”Beck said, adding if that’s the case, “then life is more likely than not prolific throughout the universe and that’s a pretty important thing to know.”
While Mars has been the favorite child of the planetary science missions selected by NASA over the years, Beck said it rightly gets more attention because humans will one day go there.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like Mars to just not as much as Venus,” Beck said. “The mere fact that an astronaut, at some point will leave a footprint on Mars. And that’s hugely inspiring and motivating. There will never be a footprint of a human on the surface of Venus.”
Beck said they have determined if the mission will liftoff from the company’s New Zealand launch site or it’s newer launchpad in Virginia. It will take about 160 days for the spacecraft to reach the planet after launch.
Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft will send a probe down through the cloud of Venus.
“As we approach the the planet, we will separate off an atmospheric entry probe and that this is we will contain the scientific instruments,” Beck said.
While the probe heads down to the planet, Photon will act as “the mother spacecraft" relaying communications with the probe back to Earth.
The probe will enter Venus’s atmosphere at about 11 kilometres or almost 7 miles per second, which is pretty high velocity.
NASA launched the last robotic mission to travel down to Venus in the 1970s and 80s. Rocket Lab plans to send not one but a series of spacecraft to Venus starting with the first mission in 2023 and Beck said the company is taking inspiration from previous mission to the fiery planet.
“Those probes are very successful. In fact, one made it all the way to the ground and sat there on the surface of Venus transmitting for a while,” Beck said. “It absolutely can be done and it’s been done before.”
Japan currently has a spacecraft orbiting Venus but the last NASA mission to the hot planet ended in 1994. NASA’s Mercury spacecraft Messenger also made a close flyby of the planet in 2007.
Rocket Lab is known for its quirky mission names but Beck says they have still not decided to on a name for the mission to Venus. It’s last mission was dubbed, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical” whereas others have been called “Look Ma, No Hands” and “Birds of a Feather.”
Rocket Lab is based out of California but launches from New Zealand and very soon will have a second launch site in Virginia at NASA’s Wallops Island facility.
The company completed a dress rehearsal of the first launch from the Virginia site on Thursday.