One benefit of the commercial space launch revolution has been the lower cost of planetary missions. Launch systems such as the SpaceX Falcon 9 have enabled public-private partnerships such as the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in which NASA has partnered with small businesses to launch probes to the lunar surface as part of the Artemis moon-exploration program. The costs of these missions are a fraction of the past NASA-only missions.
Now, Rocket Lab, a launch company that is rapidly becoming a competitor to SpaceX, is taking cheap robotic space exploration one step further. The joint American-New Zealand company is sending a probe to search for life in the upper atmosphere of Venus, the second planet from the sun.
Venus would seem to be a strange target for a search for extraterrestrial life. Its surface is a hell of crushing CO2 and sulfuric acid with an atmospheric pressure 90 times that of the Earth’s surface and a temperature of roughly 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists believe that Venus was once a world much like Earth but, because of natural processes, underwent a runaway greenhouse effect that made the planet what it is today.
On Venus, 50 kilometers above the hellish surface, above the sulfuric acid clouds, the planet is a relatively benign place. The temperature and atmospheric pressure are very close to Earth normal.
Recently, scientists thought they had detected phosphine in the upper atmosphere of Venus. Phosphine is a gas that is only created in nature by microbes. The discovery sparked speculation that microbes trapped in droplets of water are floating 50 kilometers above the surface of Venus.
Other scientists have since disputed the discovery. Nevertheless, Rocket Lab is sending a privately financed probe that will dip into the Venusian atmosphere to find out for sure. The probe, called the Venus Life Finder (VLF), would be launched on a Rocket Lab Electron, according to Ars Technica, in May 2023. The Electron’s Photon upper stage would raise the VLF probe’s orbit until it achieves escape velocity. Some months later, in October 2023, the VLF would plunge into Venus’ atmosphere and spend three minutes looking for life.
The VLF represents the second development that promises to revolutionize planetary exploration. The probe, developed by scientists at MIT, weighs just 50 pounds. When it plunges into Venus’ atmosphere it will use an instrument called the “autofluorescing nephelometer” that will use a laser to illuminate organic molecules that may or may not exist 50 kilometers above the planet’s surface.
If the VLF probe finds signs of life in the upper atmosphere of Venus, the discovery will be a historic event. Scientists have been trying to find microbial life on Mars for decades. Extraterrestrial life may reside in warm oceans beneath the ice layers of Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Venus might be the last place that anyone expected to find the first lifeform to have evolved on — or above — another world.
Even if the VLF does not find life in the upper atmosphere of Venus, just putting the probe where it needs to be to look for it will open all sorts of possibilities for Rocket Lab and any other company that cares to take advantage of them. Tiny, light-weight robotic probes combined with cheap launch systems could usher in a new era of solar system exploration.
Even when the launch system is monstrously expensive, tiny space probes can take advantage of ridesharing opportunities. The Artemis 1 mission, currently stuck on the launch pad, contains 10 such cube satellite probes, called “CubeSats,” that will be deployed along with the uncrewed Orion spacecraft once the expensive and complex Space Launch System gets off the ground.
The CLPS program is another example of small, privately developed space probes using modern, inexpensive launch vehicles, in this case to explore the lunar surface in advance of the first Artemis missions. The Intuitive Machines Nova-C and the Astrobotic Peregrine are due to launch to the moon in December 2022. NASA is partly financing these missions.
Rocket Lab, which has already launched numerous satellites to low-Earth orbit, has also boosted the CAPSTONE CubeSat to a lunar orbit. However, the success or failure of the Venus Life Finder mission will likely determine that company’s role in exploring the solar system.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.