Updated Oct. 31 to clarify launch period.
WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab expects to launch a highly anticipated privately funded mission to Venus as soon as the end of 2024, leveraging its experience from a mission to the moon.
Speaking at a meeting of the Venus Exploration Analysis Group, or VEXAG, Oct. 30, Christophe Mandy, lead system engineer for Rocket Lab’s interplanetary missions, said the company has set a launch date of as soon as Dec. 30, 2024, for the launch of the Rocket Lab Mission to Venus.
The mission, also called the Venus Life Finder, will send a small spacecraft to Venus. A probe will separate and enter the planet’s atmosphere, equipped with a single instrument, an autofluorescence nephelometer, to detect the presence of organic compounds in droplets in the planet’s clouds. The mission is the first in a series proposed by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to look for evidence of life in the atmosphere of Venus.
Rocket Lab has been collaborating with MIT and others on the mission, which relies on private funding. The mission was at one time projected to launch in May 2023, but the company delayed it as it worked on other priorities. “The Venus mission is a nights-and-weekends project,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an interview in April. “It gets pushed to the side all the time, but we’re still working on it.”
Mandy said the company is making good progress on the mission. “We are getting various components from external vendors,” he said, including a thermal protection system for the probe provided by NASA’s Ames Research Center and the main instrument from Droplet Measurement Technologies. Delivery of both is expected by the end of the year, allowing assembly, integration and testing of the spacecraft to take place next year.
The current schedule calls for a launch Dec. 30, although the company later said the launch period extends into 2025 and a launch date has not been finalized. An Electron rocket will place the 315-kilogram spacecraft into low Earth orbit, where it will perform a series of orbit raising maneuvers leading up to a lunar flyby to send the spacecraft to Venus. That schedule would have the spacecraft arrive at Venus on May 13, 2025.
The probe will separate from the cruise stage and collect data for about five minutes as it descends through the clouds in the planet’s upper atmosphere. The spacecraft will then transmit the data it collected for 20 minutes before it reaches an altitude of about 22 kilometers, where the atmosphere pressure reaches 20 atmospheres, the limit the probe is designed to withstand. Internal temperatures will also reach the limits the electronics can withstand at the same time, he said.
The mission is designed to leverage the hardware and mission design used for CAPSTONE, the NASA-funded lunar mission launched on an Electron in June 2022 using a cruise stage called Lunar Photon. “It’s the same bus as the bus that was designed and built and launched for the CAPSTONE mission,” he said. “Being privately funded and trying to stay low cost, we’re reusing a lot of designs that already exist, minimizing the amount of engineering we need to do.”
While the MIT scientists have plans for later, more ambitious missions, the Venus probe is primarily a demonstration for Rocket Lab. “Rocket Lab itself currently does not have any ambitions of funding other missions,” he said. “We’re hoping that, by demonstrating that this is possible, we might be able to trigger more interest. The cost of this mission would be significantly lower than what is typical, so that might encourage governmental bodies to support this kind of mission.”
Among those in attendance at the VEXAG meeting was Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division. “The increase in the capability is fantastic for everyone,” she said of the planned mission. “I’m really looking forward to the Rocket Lab launch.”
Rocket Lab has not disclosed the cost of the mission, for which it is contributing the launch, cruise stage and entry probe, but would likely fit within NASA’s smallest class of planetary science missions, called SIMPLEx, with a current cost cap of $55 million. However, Glaze said NASA is deferring calls for future SIMPLEx missions because of constrained budgets.