In 2023, Rocket Lab is sending the first private mission to Venus.
Credit: Rocket Lab


In 2023, according to a Rocket Lab posting, the entrepreneurial launch firm is sending the first private mission to Venus to help gather important data regarding what may be signs of life in the clouds of Venus.

The goal, using an Electron launch vehicle and Photon spacecraft, is to send a probe to around 30 miles’ altitude, where Venus’ atmospheric conditions are closer to those found on Earth.

It was back in September 2020, that scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cardiff University announced they had observed the potential presence of phosphine. That gas typically is produced by living organisms, but it remains a controversial finding.

Image shows the night side of Venus glowing in thermal infrared, captured by Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft.
Credit: JAXA/ISAS/DARTS/Damia Bouic

Shallow oceans?

A 2019 study from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies found that Venus could have had shallow oceans on the surface for two to three billion years and this would have supported temperatures of between 68 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, around 700 million years ago, a resurfacing event released carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, turning Venus into a dangerous, inhospitable planet where atmospheric temperatures reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to Rocket Lab’s website, while more than 30 Venus missions have been undertaken, Rocket Lab’s launch next year will be the first private exploration of the planet.

Science instrument

The scientific payload of choice for the Venus mission — restricted to weigh a modest 1 kilogram – is an instrument called an autofluorescing nephelometer. Why so? It is small, cheap, and could be built quickly enough for the compressed mission timeline.

According to Sara Seager in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, once the probe is in Venus’ atmosphere, the instrument will shine a laser out of a window onto cloud particles, causing any complex molecules within them to light up, or fluoresce. Many organic molecules, such as the amino acid tryptophan, have fluorescent properties.

Credit: MIT/Breakthrough Initiatives

“If we see fluorescence, we know something interesting is in the cloud particles,” says Seager in a MIT press statement. “We can’t guarantee what organic molecule it is, or even be certain it’s an organic molecule. But it’s going to tell you there’s something incredibly interesting going on.”

Seager is principal investigator for the planned Venus Life Finder Missions – with Rocket Lab’s launch to kick-start the series of missions.

Things are progressing, said David Grinspoon, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, and a member of the Venus Life Finder Missions study group. “We are having regular meetings on the instrumentation, running some tests, experiments, etc.,” he told Inside Outer Space.

Disruptive exploration

That autofluorescing nephelometer will also measure the pattern of light reflected back from the droplets to determine their shape. Pure sulfuric acid droplets would be spherical. Anything else would suggest there’s more going on than meets the autofluorescing nephelometer, adds the MIT press statement.

Whatever the 2023 mission detects, the next Venus Life Finder mission in the suite of probes is already being planned for 2026. That probe would involve a larger payload, with a balloon that could spend more time in Venus’ clouds and conduct more extensive experiments.

“Results from that mission might then set the stage for the culmination of the Venus Life Finder Missions concept: return a sample of Venus’ atmosphere to Earth,” states the MIT press statement.

“We think it’s disruptive,” says Seager. “And that’s the MIT style.”

For more information, go to my earlier story – “Venus Exploration: Cloud-bound Sanctuary for Microbial Life?” – go to:

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