Will a small rocket company get ahead of NASA and Europe to explore Venus? Peter Beck, director of Rocket Lab, is expected to launch his own low-cost probe in 2023.
“A mission for Venus should cost around 30 million dollars,” Beck told AFP from Auckland, New Zealand, on whose coast Rocket Lab has installed its launch pad, away from everything and with access to a sky free of air traffic.
Venus, hellish and toxic, was abandoned in the 1980s by space agencies to flip to more distant planets in the solar system, including Mars, where dozens of probes and robots have been sent in the hope of discovering the first traces of past life.
“On Venus, we are looking for traces of current life”, corrects Peter Beck underlining the word “current.”
The surprising discovery of a molecule called phosphine in the clouds of Venus, thanks to radio telescopes, sparked a wave of enthusiasm on September 14 among astronomers and astrobiologists who have for years defended the hypothesis that microbes now live in the clouds of Venus. planet. However, phosphine is not a definitive test.
The announcement made even the head of NASA say that Venus should be given priority again.
Beck spent two years thinking about the feasibility of sending a probe, developed entirely privately.
He calculated, with the help of a doctoral student, that the small rocket developed by Rocket Lab – Photon – could be adapted for interplanetary travel, which until now had been the preserve of space agencies.
“When we talk about interplanetary missions in tens of millions of dollars instead of billions, in months instead of decades, the opportunities for incredible discoveries are created,” exclaims Beck.
5 minutes and it will disintegrate
Rocket Lab’s commercial niche is the launching of small satellites with its small 18-meter-high rocket into orbit, a lucrative bet that is booming with the multiplication of microsatellites.
The probe for Venus will be small: on the order of 37 kilograms and 30 centimeters in diameter. The trip from Earth takes 160 days and Photon will release the probe into the planet’s clouds to analyze them, without a parachute, at 11 kilometers per second.
The probe will only have 270 to 300 seconds to make its measurements in interesting parts of the atmosphere, according to Beck. It will then disintegrate or crash in the Venusian furnace (465 ° C on the ground).
The most difficult thing will be to choose the scientific instrument: Which molecule should you look for? Above all, it will have to weigh only about 3 kg, a miniaturization that some experts doubt but that for Beck is very possible.
Rocket Lab will need the help of scientists (MIT astronomer Sara Seager is already working on this).
This very personal adventure is part of the new space age, whose best representative is Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, who has revolutionized the launch industry with his reusable rockets, transports NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, and dreams of colonizing Mars.
NASA is no longer afraid to hire private missions. Rocket Lab will receive $ 10 million to send a microsatellite into lunar orbit in 2021.
As for Venus, Beck would like, after his first private mission, to offer his services to the NASA.
The space agency is considering returning to Venus, but not before 2026 at the earliest. “We want many, many missions every year,” says the young head of Rocket Lab.