Rocket Lab to conduct the first private mission to Venus

One of the benefits of the commercial space launch revolution is the lower cost of planetary missions. Launch systems like the SpaceX Falcon 9 have enabled public-private partnerships such as the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in which NASA has partnered with small companies to launch probes on the lunar surface as part of the Artemis lunar exploration program. The costs of these missions are only a fraction of previous NASA missions.

Currently, rocket lab The launch company that is rapidly becoming a competitor to SpaceX is taking cheap robotic space exploration one step further. The New Zealand-American joint company is sending a probe to search for life in the upper atmosphere of Venus, the second planet far from the sun.

Venus may seem a strange target for the search for extraterrestrial life. Its surface is an inferno of crushing carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid with atmospheric pressure 90 times that of the Earth’s surface and a temperature of nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists believe that Venus was once a world very similar to Earth, but that due to natural processes, it has undergone the runaway greenhouse effect that made the planet what it is today.

On Venus, 50 kilometers above the infernal surface, above the clouds of sulfuric acid, the planet is a relatively pleasant place. The temperature and atmospheric pressure are very close to the normal ground level.

Recently, scientists believed they had detected phosphine in the upper atmosphere of Venus. Phosphine is a gas generated in nature only by microbes. This discovery sparked speculation that microbes trapped in water droplets float 50 kilometers above the surface of Venus.

Other scientists have since disputed this discovery. However, Rocket Lab is sending a privately funded probe that dives into Venus’ atmosphere to find out for sure. The probe is called Venus Life Finder (VLF), on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket, According to Ars Technica, in May 2023. The photon upper stage of the electron will raise the orbit of the VLF probe until it achieves its escape velocity. A few months later, in October 2023, the VLF will plunge into the atmosphere of Venus and spend three minutes searching for life.

The VLF represents the second development that promises to revolutionize planetary exploration. The probe, developed by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, weighs just 50 pounds. When you are Drowning in the atmosphere of Venus It will use an instrument called a “autofluorescence nucleometer” that will use a laser to illuminate organic molecules that may or may not exist 50 kilometers above the planet’s surface.

If the VLF probe finds signs of life in Venus’ upper atmosphere, the discovery will be a historic event. Scientists have been trying to find microbial life on Mars for decades. Extraterrestrial life may live in the warm oceans beneath the icy layers of Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Venus might be the last place anyone would expect to find the first life form that evolved in – or above – another world.

Even if the VLF does not find life in Venus’ upper atmosphere, simply placing the probe where it is needed to look for it will open up all kinds of possibilities for Rocket Lab and any other company interested in taking advantage of it. Small, lightweight robotic probes combined with inexpensive launch systems could herald a new era of solar system exploration.

Even when the launch system is very expensive, small space probes can take advantage of ride-sharing opportunities. The Artemis 1 mission, currently stuck on the launch pad, contains 10 cube space probes called “CubeSats,” which will be deployed along with the unmanned Orion spacecraft once the costly and complex space launch system takes off.

The CLPS program is another example of small space probes specially developed using modern and inexpensive launch vehicles, in this case to explore the lunar surface prior to the first Artemis missions. The Nova-C and Astrobotic Peregrine are scheduled to launch to the Moon in December 2022. These missions are partially funded by NASA.

Rocket Lab, which has already launched several satellites into low Earth orbit, has also boosted capstone CubeSat into lunar orbit. However, the success or failure of the Venus Life Finder mission will likely determine that company’s role in exploring the solar system.

Mark R. Whittington, author of Space Exploration StudiesWhy is it so hard to go back to the moon?” Beside “Moon, Mars, and beyond” And the “Why does America return to the moon?It is blogger in The corner of the guards.