Vice reports on Rocket Lab’s plans to use privately funded spacecraft, supported by a research team at MIT, to explore the famously inhospitable surface of Venus for signs of life:
After a five-month cruise to Venus, Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft will drop off a small instrument that will descend for several minutes through the planet’s turbulent skies, which some scientists have speculated could host life, before kaputing on its surface, which is a torture pit of searing temperatures and crushing pressures.
The mission is unique not only because it is a private venture, but because Rocket Lab specializes in vehicles that are much smaller and more affordable than those typically used in interplanetary missions. Researchers led by Richard French, the director of business development and strategy, space systems, at Rocket Lab, said the mini-mission would therefore “support expanding opportunities for scientists and to increase the rate of science return,” in a study published this month in the journal Aerospace.
“One of our strategic goals is to demonstrate a high-performance, low-cost, fast-turnaround deep space entry mission delivering Decadal-class science with small spacecraft and small launch vehicles,” French said in an email.
Whereas NASA and other space agencies usually pack a suite of instruments on their missions, Rocket Lab’s Venus spacecraft will carry just one two-pound instrument called an autofluorescing nephelometer, which will look for signs of life by sampling particles in the clouds.
Though the surface of Venus is nightmarish, conditions are more temperate in the clouds, where sunlight shines through and water droplets swirl. For this reason, some scientists have suggested that Venus might host habitable pockets of sky, where enterprising microbes could thrive tens of miles above the surface hellscape, though no clear evidence of life on the planet has ever been found.
The mission’s nephelometer is equipped with a UV laser that will shine light into the dense Venusian clouds to see if any atmospheric particles fluoresce—or glow—a reaction that would strongly suggest the presence of organic compounds, which are key ingredients for life. These carbon-bearing compounds would not provide smoking-gun evidence of alien microbes, because organics can be produced abiotically, but they would still reveal unprecedented details about Venus’ habitability.
“Evidence of organic molecules will be a game changer because all life needs complex organic chemistry,” said Sara Seager, a leading planetary scientist at MIT who co-authored the new study and is the principal investigator on the nephelometer, in an email. “This will change the current paradigm that the sulfuric acid droplets are sterile to potential biochemicals and push the idea forward that the Venus cloud droplets—incredibly harsh for any Earth life—could be habitable to life based on a different biochemistry.”
You can read more about the proposed mission here, in Aerospace.