Will a small rocket company overtake NASA and Europe by exploring Venus in three years? This is the hope of Peter Beck, boss of the small American company Rocket Lab, who wants to launch his own low-cost probe in 2023.
“A mission for Venus should cost around $ 30 million,” Peter Beck told AFP from Auckland, New Zealand, on the coast of which Rocket Lab has installed its launch pad, far from everything and with access in the sky clear of all air traffic.
Venus, infernal and toxic, has been largely neglected since the 1980s by space agencies for the benefit of more distant planets in the solar system including Mars, where dozens of probes and robots have been sent in the hope of discovering the first traces of past life.
“On Venus, we are looking for traces of current life”, corrects Peter Beck, insisting on the word “current”.
The surprise discovery of a molecule called phosphine in the clouds of Venus, thanks to radio telescopes on Earth, sparked a wave of enthusiasm on September 14 among astronomers and astrobiologists who have been defending for years the hypothesis that microbes live today. 'hui in the clouds of the planet. Phosphine is not definitive proof, but it is possible that it betrays the presence of living organisms.
The announcement even prompted the NASA chief to say that Venus had to be given priority again.
It turns out that Peter Beck was part of the pro-Venus camp, and had been thinking for two years about the feasibility of sending a probe, entirely developed in a private way, he says. He calculated, with the help of a doctoral student, that the small satellite that Rocket Lab developed in-house, Photon, could be adapted for interplanetary travel – until now the domain reserved for space agencies, given the costs eight or nine zeros.
“When we talk about interplanetary missions in tens of millions of dollars instead of billions, and months rather than decades, that creates opportunities for incredible discoveries,” exclaims Peter Beck.
5 minutes, fall included
Rocket Lab's business niche is the sending of small satellites into Earth orbit, with its small 18-meter-high rocket, a lucrative bet and booming with the proliferation of microsatellites.
The probe for Venus will therefore be small: around 37 kilograms and 30 cm in diameter. The trip from Earth will take 160 days, then Photon will drop the probe into the planet's clouds to analyze them, without a parachute, at 11 kilometers per second.
The probe will therefore only have between 270 and 300 seconds to make its measurements in interesting parts of the atmosphere, according to Peter Beck. Then it will disintegrate or crash into the Venusian furnace, so hot that lead would melt there (465 ° C on the ground).
The most complicated will be to choose the scientific instrument: which molecule should he look for? And above all: it will have to weigh in the order of only 3 kg, a miniaturization which experts doubt but quite possible, answers Peter Beck. There, Rocket Lab will need the help of scientists (MIT astronomer Sara Seager is already collaborating).
This very personal adventure is part of the new space age, whose best representative is Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, who revolutionized the launch sector with his reusable rockets, now transports astronauts from NASA to the International Space Station , and dreams of colonizing Mars.
NASA is no longer afraid to subcontract missions to these entrepreneurs. Rocket Lab will be paid $ 10 million to send a microsatellite into lunar orbit in 2021.
As for Venus, Peter Beck would like, after his first private mission, to offer his services (paid) to NASA. The space agency is considering returning to Venus itself, but not until 2026 at the earliest.
“We want lots and lots of assignments every year,” says the young boss.