Rocket Lab Is Already Planning a Venus Mission to Hunt for Alien Life


Rocket Lab has seen modest success with its petite Electron booster in the three years since its maiden flight. There have been a few setbacks, to be sure, but the little rocket that could has its sights set on a very timely target. Rocket Lab might be the first to reach Venus to look into the recent biosignatures up close

The recently announced detection of phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere doesn’t confirm the presence of alien life, but it is extremely interesting. Phosphine should not be present on the planet unless a living organism is making it. The goal now is to determine if there are actually floating aliens on Venus, or if there’s some previously unknown chemical process producing all that phosphine. To be sure, we’ll probably need to go there, and Rocket Lab says it can do that on the cheap. Sending a probe with the Electron rocket might cost as little as $10-20 million. By comparison, NASA’s low-cost Discovery missions are capped at $450 million. 

The Electron rocket isn’t in the same league as the Atlas V or Falcon 9. It’s what’s known as a small-lift rocket, which has a payload capacity of just a few hundred pounds. That’s enough to carry the company’s Photon satellite bus. Both will come into play for Rocket Lab’s planned 2023 Venus mission. The Electron will get Photon into orbit, allowing the craft to putter out to Venus with its Curie monopropellant engine. Upon arrival, the satellite will be moving too fast to enter a stable orbit — about 24,600 mph (39,600 km/h). So, it will perform a flyby and launch a probe into the planet’s atmosphere. 

The proposed mission to Venus has been in the works for a while, but Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck says the team has been talking to scientists behind the phosphine discovery to improve the mission’s chances of gathering critical data. These telltale signals were found in a particular layer of the planet’s atmosphere where the temperature and pressure are potentially habitable. On the surface, Venus has a choking pressure 100 times higher than Earth and temperatures high enough to melt lead. 

There’s great value in understanding how Venus, which may have been Earth-like in the distant past, became the hellish world we see today. That’s why Rocket Lab started planning the mission, but it takes on a new sense of urgency after the phosphine discovery. Beck says that Venus is “well and truly undervalued.” That’s looking truer now than ever. Beck thought the chances of finding life on Venus were low, but now he’s more optimistic about the mission. Rocket Lab may even send multiple probes, depending on how the next few years go.

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