Launches: Life in Venus clouds? Rocket Lab to check
The spunky little aerospace company Rocket Lab – based in Long Beach, California – has set its sights on Venus. It’s planning a private mission to the solar system’s hottest planet in humanity’s ongoing quest to find out if we’re alone in the universe. A peer-reviewed paper detailing the mission was published earlier this month (August 13, 2022) in the journal Aerospace, and its authors are aiming high:
Rocket Lab has made the engineering and financial commitment to fly a private mission to Venus, with a goal of launching in 2023, to help answer the question “Are we alone in the universe?”
The probe they’re sending will weigh just 1 kg (2.2 pounds) and spend only five minutes speeding through the Venusian atmosphere, taking samples of the air as it goes. Rocket Lab said it plans to launch in May of 2023, with a backup window in December. The probe will search for signs of organic molecules that could indicate the presence of extraterrestrial life.
Rocket Lab also went to the moon
Besides furthering humanity’s understanding of Earth’s near twin as it searches for conditions that could foster life, the mission is also intended to “mature” Rocket Lab’s Photon interplanetary spacecraft, which will shoot the probe into its trans-Venus injection trajectory after being sent aloft aboard one of the company’s Electron launch vehicles.
This won’t be the first time a Photon has left the planet. Earlier this year, while the attention of the community of spaceflight fans was focused on SpaceX’s Starship and NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar mission preparations, Rocket Lab sent a probe to the moon, a preliminary mission for the Photon intended to prepare for humanity’s permanent colonization of our natural satellite, as described in the paper laying out the Venus mission parameters:
The high-energy Photon, developed by Rocket Lab for the NASA CAPSTONE mission that successfully launched to the moon in June 2022 and also being matured for the NASA Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) mission launching to Mars in 2024, is a self-sufficient small spacecraft capable of long-duration interplanetary cruise.
Life in clouds of Venus?
And this isn’t the first mention we’ve heard this month of possible life in the clouds of Venus. Jane Greaves, an astronomer at Cardiff University, told The Planetary Society on its August 17, 2022, podcast called Planetary Radio, that she’s found phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus for the third time. It’s more confirmation for Greaves’ earlier discoveries of phosphine on Venus, which on Earth is created through biological processes. What’s more, Greaves speculated that life in Venus’ atmosphere may exist in self-contained droplet worlds that are home to microbes.
On Earth, phosphine is created by anaerobic bacteria, or bacteria that live in extreme environments without oxygen. On the Planetary Radio podcast, Greaves described when she first started researching what phosphine is and why it’s special:
It’s a gas that you find on Earth where you’ve got these bacteria in extreme situations and they don’t use oxygen. So, they get their energy in other ways. For reasons we don’t really understand, they pump out some phosphine gas.
That led her to a memory about Carl Sagan:
There’s this old idea that Carl Sagan and some other people came up with that there could be life floating in the clouds of Venus where there’s no oxygen.
And thus she began her search for phosphine in Venus’s atmosphere. We should add that not all scientists agree with Greaves’ result. And certainly not all are convinced that the clouds of Venus are a home to life.
But it’s interesting!
Read more: Life in the Clouds of Venus? by Harold Morowitz and Carl Sagan, 1967, Nature.
Bottom line: In 2023, the aerospace company Rocket Lab – based in Long Beach, California – will launch a private mission to probe the atmosphere of Venus for signs of life.