Skip to main content

Rocket Lab plans to send the first private mission to Venus

While for decades Mars has been the planet outside Earth that has arguably received the most attention, in recent years, planetary scientists have been setting their sites on our other neighbor: Venus. This strange planet with its hellishly high temperatures and incredible surface pressure will be the site for two upcoming NASA missions and one European Space Agency mission in the next decade, and these agency missions will also be joined by a private space mission from New Zealand-based company Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab recently shared more details for its planned mission to Venus in a publication in the journal Aerospace. With a planned launch in 2023, it will be the first private mission to Venus and will use Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket and Photon spacecraft.

Illustration of Rocket Lab's mission to Venus.
Illustration of Rocket Lab’s mission to Venus. Rocket Lab

The aim of the mission is to investigate whether anything could be living in the thick clouds of Venus. This topic received international attention in 2020 when a study suggested that there could be phosphine, a potential indicator of life, in the Venusian clouds. However, subsequent research suggested that the indicator was likely only sulfur dioxide, a common gas not particularly related to life. Even so, the potential for microscopic life to exist on Venus has been long been debated, as the planet was once similar to Earth.

The Rocket Lab mission will send a probe into orbit around Venus to investigate its atmosphere, using a probe with an instrument called an autofluorescing nephelometer to gather data on what the Venusian clouds are composed of.

The Electron rocket will launch in May 2023 and carry the Photon spacecraft into orbit around Earth; then the spacecraft will separate and travel on to Venus. Once it arrives in orbit in October 2023, it will deploy the probe which will drop through the atmosphere and send data back to Earth. This is a similar plan to NASA’s DAVINCI mission to Venus, which also involves sending a probe through the planet’s atmosphere, though that probe will have more extensive instruments like spectrometers and a camera.

“The mission is the first opportunity to probe the Venus cloud particles directly in nearly four decades. Even with the mass and data rate constraints and the limited time in the Venus atmosphere, breakthrough science is possible,” Rocket Lab collaborators write in the publication. “The overarching science goals are the search for evidence of life or habitability in the Venusian clouds.”

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Check out SpaceX’s new spacesuit for first private spacewalk
spacex spacesuit first private spacewalk

The Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Suit

SpaceX has shown off the new spacesuit that will be worn for the first commercial astronaut spacewalk during the upcoming Polaris Dawn mission.

Read more
Psyche spacecraft sends data back to Earth using lasers for the first time
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft is shown in a clean room at the Astrotech Space Operations facility near the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 8, 2022. DSOC’s gold-capped flight laser transceiver can be seen, near center, attached to the spacecraft.

NASA's experimental laser communication system, riding along with the Psyche spacecraft, has hit another milestone. The system was recently used to transmit Psyche data from over 140 million miles (226 million kilometers) away.

The system, called Deep Space Optical Communications, or DSOC, has previously been used to send test data and even to send a video of a cat, to test whether using laser communications in addition to the usual radio communications is possible. But as this is technology is experimental, the Psyche spacecraft has its own radio communications system it has been using to transmit its science data. Now, though, DSOC has been able to interface with the Psyche systems and send Psyche engineering data back to Earth as well.

Read more
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket just completed a milestone mission
A Falcon 9 achieves SpaceX's 300th booster landing.

SpaceX has been launching and landing rockets since 2015, though some of those early touchdowns didn't go as planned and ended in a ball of flames.

These days, the landing process has been pretty much perfected, and on Tuesday evening, the spaceflight company achieved its 300th successful first-stage touchdown. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk congratulated his team for achieving the feat.

Read more