Although later studies questioned phosphine detection, the initial study revived interest in Venus. As a result, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) selected three new missions travel to the planet and investigate, among other questions, whether its conditions could harbor life in the past. China and India also have plans to send missions to Venus. “Phosphine reminded everyone how poorly characterized [this planet] it was,” says Colin Wilson of the University of Oxford, one of the deputy principal scientists for Europe’s Venus mission, EnVision.
But most of those missions wouldn’t return results until later in the 2020s or 2030s. Astronomers wanted answers now. Luckily, so did Peter Beck, CEO of New Zealand-based launch company Rocket Lab. Long fascinated by Venus, Beck was approached by a group of MIT scientists about a bold mission that could use one of the company’s rockets to search for life on Venus much sooner, with a launch in 2023. (A launch window backup is available in January 2025.)
Phosphine or not, scientists believe that if life exists on Venus, it could be in the form of microbes inside it. small drops of sulfuric acid that float high above the planet. While the surface appears largely inhospitable, with temperatures high enough to melt lead and pressures similar to those at the bottom of Earth’s oceans, conditions 45 to 60 kilometers above the ground in the clouds of Venus are significantly warmer.
“I’ve always felt that Venus has a tough reputation,” says Beck. “The discovery of phosphine was the catalyst. We need to go to Venus to search for life.”
Details of the mission, the first private venture to another planet, have has now been published. Rocket Lab has developed a small multipurpose spacecraft called the Photon, about the size of a dining table, that can be sent to multiple locations in the solar system. released in june. For this mission to Venus, another Photon spacecraft will be used to launch a small probe into the planet’s atmosphere.
That probe is currently being developed by a team of fewer than 30 people, led by Sara Seager at MIT. Launched as soon as May 2023, it should take five months to reach Venus, arriving in October 2023. At less than $10 million, the mission, funded by Rocket Lab, MIT and undisclosed philanthropists, is high-risk but low-cost. cost, just 2% of the price of each of NASA’s Venus missions.
“It’s the simplest, cheapest, and best thing you can do to try to make a big discovery,” says Seager.
The sampler is small, weighing just 45 pounds and measuring 15 inches across, slightly larger than a basketball hoop. Its cone-shaped design sports a heat shield at the front, which will bear the brunt of the intense heat generated as the probe, unleashed by the Photon spacecraft ahead of its arrival, slams into Venus’ atmosphere at 25,000 miles per hour.