There’s more than 1 way to send a spacecraft to Venus

A look at Rocket Lab’s private mission to Earth’s twin, and how NASA decides what planets to visit

Mars has been the bell of the planetary ball in the last few decades, but that’s not to say other planets in the solar system, like Venus, haven’t had a fair share of attention over the years.

NASA last sent a spacecraft to orbit Earth’s nearest neighbor in 1990.

Russia, formerly the Soviet Union, sent a whole slew of mostly successful missions to Venus, and Japan has an orbiter there now.

The tricky part is sending a robotic mission to the surface. Most have only survived for a few hours. So why send a robot to a planet that will destroy it?

The short answer: It can likely tell us more about our home planet.

[RELATED EPISODE: The curious tale of searching for signs of life on Venus]

“Why does it have such a different path than what we took here on Earth?” NASA Discovery Program lead scientist Thomas Wagner said.

It used to be -- in the U.S.-- NASA was the only way to fund and send a robotic mission to another world, but not anymore. Commercial space companies such as Rocket Lab are funding and planning their own missions in record time.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck has had his sights set on Venus for a long time.

“I’ve always had a fascination for Venus, for a couple of reasons,” Beck said. “Venus is a very close analogue to Earth, you know, similar mass, similar size. 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.”

At least 800 million odd years ago, Venus was a very different planet than than it is today.

Rocket Lab plans to launch the first private robotic Venusian mission in 2023, a very quick turnaround time for a planetary mission.

A rendering of Rocket Lab's Photon spacecraft configured to go to Venus. The company wants to send the first robotic mission to Venus in 2023. (Image credit: Rocket Lab) (Rocket Lab)

Meanwhile, NASA is considering funding its own missions to the planet considered Earth’s twin.

NASA’s Discovery Program selects and launches small to medium missions to explore our solar system. Currently there are two Venus missions under consideration and two more equally fascinating missions, one designed to study Jupiter’s moon Io and another to Neptune’s moon Triton.

Under this program, these spacecraft typically cost less than $500 million to design, build and send to its destination. That’s not chump change, but when compared to NASA’s largest robotic missions --known as flagship or strategic missions -- that cost several billion dollars, this is a relatively small cost.

The goal of Discovery is fundamental to understanding our solar system and how we got here.

The process of submitting a proposal to NASA in hopes the space agency taps your mission is no short process, but it’s something Wagner said is a privilege he is thrilled to take part in.

Here’s what launching a robotic mission to another planet looks like, in a nutshell, according to Wagner:

“This is what a typical NASA mission is. Somebody goes into a laboratory someplace and says, ‘Oh, you’re making this crazy, impossible-to-do measurement here in the lab with a staff of technicians and all the room and power that you want.’ And then they say, ‘I got a great idea. Let’s make this really tiny. Let’s put it on a spaceship. Let’s have it survive a rocket blast where it gets shaken -- and taken up to four Gs and smashed around. Let’s put it through space for four or five years. Let it get bombarded by radiation. And then let’s figure out how to get to this place and still make these measurements as good or better than you did in the lab right here.’”

By offering this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many scientists to submit proposals, Wagner said, NASA hopes to draw the best ideas, and most innovative approaches.

Every few years, the best and brightest submit proposals to NASA with their ideas to study another world or body of our solar system.

Johns Hopkins University planetary scientist Dr. Sarah Horst has been part of this selection process under NASA’s Frontier Program. She’s a scientists on NASA’s Dragon fly mission headed to Saturn’s moon Titan, launching no earlier than 2026.

“You write a proposal with a group of people. ... It’s not just scientists, but also engineers, project managers -- people who calculate the budgets and try to figure out how much things cost,” Horst said.

There are also tradeoffs to sending a smallish spacecraft to another world.

“We spend a really lot of time thinking about exactly what our science questions are, and making sure that our spacecraft can answer those science questions,” Horst said. “But that often means that there are other questions that we will not be able to answer, because of the choices that we made.”

On this episode of “Space Curious,” a podcast by WKMG and Graham Media, we’ll find out how NASA makes the tough choices -- selecting which missions to send to other worlds and how Rocket Lab plans to be the first private company to send a spacecraft to Venus.

This story was first published in December 2020. It has since been updated.


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