It’s been well over 30 years since humanity last sent a satellite into the Venusian atmosphere, but a private spacefaring startup hopes to end that lull by launching its own probe towards the planet in 2023 in search of alien life. Earlier this week, a team from Rocket Lab published its mission architecture paper outlining the company’s imminent plans to explore the clouds above Venus using a small Electron rocket strapped with a 1 kg autofluorescing nephelometer, or “an instrument to detect suspended particles in the clouds,” according to Ars Technica.
“In September 2020, scientists at MIT and Cardiff University announced they had observed what may be signs of life in the clouds of our planetary neighbor, Venus. Their observations indicated the potential presence of phosphine, a gas typically produced by living organisms. In 2023, Rocket Lab is sending the first private mission to Venus to help gather further evidence,” the company vows on its website.
Evidence indicates that Venus once resembled Earth in a number of ways, with temperatures ranging between 68-122 degrees Fahrenheit thanks to the existence of multiple, shallow oceans. Around 700 million years’ ago, a massive “resurfacing event” released copious amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that soon turned the planet into a violently inhospitable environment. Today, Venus regularly experiences crushing surface pressures with temperatures regularly reaching 900-degrees Fahrenheit, making it the hottest planet in our solar system. However, the living conditions begin to resemble Earth’s roughly 30 miles above the planet’s surface, which is exactly where Rocket Lab hopes its small probe will reach.
If successful, the satellite will spend about five minutes passing through the window of Venusian atmosphere, during which time it will transmit its readings back to Earth for scientists to study. It’s in their hopes that these readings will potentially contain new evidence pointing towards the existence of microbial life high above Venus. “Even with the mass and data rate constraints and the limited time in the Venus atmosphere, breakthrough science is possible,” Rocket Labs’ scientists argue in their recent mission paper.
Rocket Lab is one of the lesser know private spaceflight companies at the moment, but that will likely change extremely quickly if they can pull off the ambitious project.