5 mins read 23 Aug 2022

Rocket Lab mission to find life on Venus

In May 2023, Rocket Lab will fund and engineer the first private mission to Earth's neighbouring planet, Venus - sending a probe to search for any signs of organic life or habitability in the fiery planet's dense shelf of sulphuric acid clouds.

Artist’s impression of a high energy Photon deploying a probe to Venus. Credit: Rocket Lab /Twitter.

Is there life on Venus? Nope, not Mars; we’re talking Venus, Earth’s planetary twin that has gone horribly wrong and is literally a burning hot mess. Temperatures reach 462 degrees Celsius on the planet’s surface, and its carbon dioxide atmosphere is 90 times thicker than Earth. But NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) tells us that Venus may once have been very different with shallow oceans and habitable surface temperatures for up to 2 billion years. Now, New Zealand-based launch company, Rocket Lab, is self-funding a private mission to discover more about Earth’s planetary twin. 

In May 2023, Rocket Lab is sending a probe to Venus to search for organic life or habitability in the sulphuric acid clouds of Venus. This will be the first private mission to Venus to help gather further evidence of life. Rocket Lab has teamed up with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor Sara Seager, amongst other noted planetary scientists, to work on the mission.  

The Rocket Lab probe that will search for organic chemicals in the Venusian cloud particles will only be 40cm in diameter and weighs in at just 20 kilograms with one kilogram of science payload. 

It will take about three minutes after moving through the atmosphere of Venus to reach the clouds at 45 – 60km altitude, where it will perform science operations for five and a half minutes using a low-mass, low-cost autofluorescing nephelometer (AFN). The probe will then have 20 minutes to transmit the data back to Earth before it reaches the surface after about an hour from entry into the atmosphere of Venus. 

It's been nearly 40 years since the last in situ measurements on Venus. Russian Vega missions had balloons and landers in 1985 with Vega 2's balloons drifting a third of the way around Venus, collecting valuable atmospheric data.  Since then, there have been around 30 missions to Venus, none moving past orbit to enter the planet’s atmosphere. 

It will take the spacecraft five months to reach Venus with expected arrival in October 2023 given the May launch. A backup launch window is available in January 2025.

Rocket Lab’s high energy Photon

Rocket Lab high-energy Photon is a self-sufficient small spacecraft that can be configured depending on the type of mission it’s used for. It is designed for launch on Electron, Rocket Lab’s dedicated small launch vehicle. 

While the Photon has the capability for low Earth orbit missions, it’s also able to be configured to go further into space. It was used for the NASA Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission that successfully launched to the moon in June 2022 to become the first launch of NASA’s Artemis program. The Photon will also be used for the NASA Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) mission with a planned launch to Mars in 2024.

Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO, Peter Beck shared his enthusiasm for the mission to Venus in a Rocket Lab video.  

“Oh, I love Venus the most...For sure. I mean Mars is great and all, and the Moon's pretty awesome, but Venus has the potential for life! If we look at our near-earth objects, I mean, Mars potentially had life and who knows what we'll find there but Venus is incredibly understudied, and I think there's a tremendous amount to learn."

“If you look at Venus and Earth, they are the two closest planets to each other and Venus is just Earth just gone really bad so wouldn't it be good to go and take a look at that.”

The Venus Life Finder Mission Study was an 18-month study led by MIT’s Dr. Janusz Petkowski and Professor Sara Seagera (who is teaming up with Rocket Lab). It is a series of focused astrobiology mission concepts to search for habitability, signs of life, and life itself in the Venus atmosphere.

“The concept of life in the Venus clouds is not new, having been around for over half a century,” states the study

“What is new is the opportunity to search for life or signs of life directly in the Venus atmosphere with scientific instrumentation that is both significantly more technologically advanced and greatly miniaturized since the last direct in situ probes to Venus’ atmosphere in the 1980s." 

“Venus is a compelling planet to search for signs of life because of the habitable temperatures in the cloud layers and because of many atmospheric chemical anomalies that together are suggestive of unknown chemistry and possibly the presence of life.”


Read more about the technical specs of Rocket Lab’s mission to Venus