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Rocket Lab shooting for the clouds of Venus with life-searching 2023 mission

By Jeff Spry
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West Coast spaceflight company Rocket Lab has its sights set on deploying a scientific expedition to the planet Venus in 2023 to hunt for life-affirming data amid its choking sulfuric atmosphere. This robotic astrobiology mission to the mysterious body located between Mercury and Earth will search for hidden organic compounds trapped deep in the thick clouds of Venus.

"I'm madly in love with Venus," said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beckat this month's corporate update session. "I'm working very hard to put together a private mission to go to Venus in 2023."

The 2023 endeavor will employ Rocket Lab's reusable two-stage Electron booster and Photon satellite transport. The 57-foot-tall Electron is now fully fortified for interplanetary missions with recent updates and improvements in battery technology, giving extra oomph to the rocket's array of Rutherford engines. Electron is now able to boost up to 660 pounds of payload to low-Earth orbit, compared to the older version's 500-pound limit.

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Beck's Venusian adoration comes partially from the nearby world's astrobiology makeup, but also from the knowledge we could gather from our neighboring planet, which he refers to as "Earth in a climate-change disaster." 

Eons ago, Venus was a relatively temperate world, with flowing rivers, deep lakes, and vast oceans that might have existed for billions of years. However, a cataclysmic climate-change disaster in the form of an out-of-control greenhouse effect altered Venus' surface into a barren wasteland complete with oppressive atmospheric pressures and lead-melting temperatures unfit for life.

Scientists are convinced that if life was ever a factor on Venus, it might still be lingering in the sky 30 miles above its surface today, where the temperature and conditions are actually similar to Earth.

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"We're going to learn a lot on the way there, and we're going to have a crack at seeing if we can discover what's in that atmospheric zone," Beck said. "And who knows? You may hit the jackpot. It opens the window for Venus, and it opens the window for recovery." 

Even with no certainty that Rocket Lab's ambitious trip will reveal any astonishing secrets, Beck is convinced that the project will have a rippling effect on the scientific community at large.


"At the very least, I think it's a needle-mover even for just a private mission to try and go do something interplanetary," he said. "That sends a message to the rest of the world that, 'Hey, look — we can do these things privately.'"

Before heading off to Venus, Rocket Lab's Electron and Photon equipment will venture beyond Earth orbit on a lunar excursion as the private aerospace company was just awarded a contract to accompany a NASA satellite to the Moon in early 2021.

"Generally, if you want to do a science mission to the moon, you start writing a check at $50-$100 million," Beck added. "But with Photon coming online, for $10-20 million, you can actually do some really good science, interplanetary and lunar. That's what excites me."