NASA’s Going to Venus — and So Is Peter Beck

NASA’s Going to Venus — and So Is Peter Beck

NASA’s announcement yesterday that it will send two probes to Venus later this decade was music to the ears of Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck.  Long convinced Venus may hold clues as to whether there is life elsewhere in the solar system, he is planning his own privately-funded mission to the planet and is “thrilled” Venus is back in NASA’s sights, too.

Peter Beck, Founder, CEO and CTO, Rocket Lab. From his LinkedIn page.

Rocket Lab is probably best known as the company that launches small satellites from Beck’s native New Zealand although it is a U.S. company and is building a second launch site at Wallops Island, VA.  Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has a record of 17 successes out of 20 attempts since 2017.

The most recent launch on May 15 was one of the three failures and the cause is still under investigation, but it is an impressive record nonetheless. Rocket Lab is building a more capable rocket, Neutron, and also builds very small satellites called cubesats using its Photon spacecraft bus. NASA is using one of them for its CAPSTONE cubesat lunar mission later this year.

A Venus enthusiast, Beck decided several years ago it was time to send a new probe to further research into why Venus, Earth’s twin in some regards, turned out so differently. Not to mention speculation that microbial life might exist in the atmosphere, an idea recently buttressed by scientists announcing the apparent detection of phosphine there. Those claims are disputed by other scientists, but sending a probe to collect data could help settle the question.

Beck plans to build and launch a Photon-based cubesat that will fly past Venus and eject a small probe into the atmosphere to look for phosphine. The data will be transmitted back to Earth from the probe through the Photon spacecraft. Launch is expected in 2023 and he is determined to do it as a completely privately-funded mission.

He said last year  “It puts a flag in the ground” and will be a “turning point in space” to have missions to other planets funded by the private sector instead of governments.  It is “where we need to go.”

But he is excited about NASA’s decision to launch two probes to Venus later this decade, too.  NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced the selection of DAVINCI+ and VERITAS as the next two Discovery missions yesterday.

His enthusiasm spills out in an emailed statement to today.

“For decades Mars and the Moon have been in the planetary science limelight while Venus patiently waited in the wings. There’s so much we can learn from Venus as Earth’s closest analogue, so it’s time to go and it’s why we’re working on the first private mission there. Understanding why Venus developed into a hellish inferno when it is so similar to Earth is something we simply have to get to the bottom of.  We’re ecstatic that Venus is getting the attention it deserves and thrilled that NASA’s Discovery Program has placed the planet firmly in its sights. Learning all that we can from Venus will take multiple missions, both private and public, and we look forward to taking that first step with our mission in 2023. By sending a probe through Venus’ cloud layer in 2023 to measure for phosphine, a biomarker that could signal the presence of microbial life, we hope to answer humanity’s biggest question – is there life off Earth?” — Peter Beck


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