Although later studies cast doubt on the detection of phosphine, the initial study reignited interest in Venus. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) then selected three new missions to travel to the planet and investigate, among other things, whether its conditions could have supported life in the past. China and India also have plans to send missions to Venus. “The phosphine reminded everyone of the mischaracterized [this planet] it was,” says Colin Wilson of the University of Oxford, one of the deputy principal scientists of Europa’s Venus mission, EnVision.
But most of these missions would not return results until later in the 2020s or 2030s. Astronomers wanted answers now. Luckily, so did Peter Beck, CEO of New Zealand-based launch company Rocket Lab. Fascinated by Venus, Beck was approached by a group of MIT scientists about a bold mission that could use one of the company’s rockets to hunt for life on Venus much sooner, with a launch in 2023. (A safety launch window is available in Jan. 2025.)
Phosphine or not, scientists think that if life exists on Venus, it could be in the form of microbes inside tiny drops of sulfuric acid floating high above the planet. Although the surface appears largely inhospitable, with temperatures hot enough to melt lead and pressures similar to those at the bottom of Earth’s oceans, conditions about 45 to 60 kilometers above the ground in the clouds of Venus are significantly more temperate
“I’ve always heard that Venus gets a tough rap,” says Beck. “The discovery of phosphine was the catalyst. We need to go to Venus to look for life.”
Details of the mission, the first privately funded venture to another planet, have now been released. Rocket Lab has developed a small, versatile spacecraft called the Photon, about the size of a dining room table, that can be sent to various locations in the solar system. In June, a mission to the moon was launched for NASA. For this Venus mission, another Photon spacecraft will be used to launch a small probe into the planet’s atmosphere.
This probe is currently being developed by a team of less than 30 people, led by Sara Seager at MIT. Launched as early as May 2023, it should take five months to reach Venus, arriving in October 2023. At less than $10 million, the mission, funded by Rocket Lab, MIT and undisclosed philanthropists, is high risk but low cost, only 2% of the price of each of NASA’s Venus missions.
“This is the easiest, cheapest and best thing you could do to try to make a big discovery,” says Seager.
The probe is small, weighing only 45 pounds and measuring 15 inches in diameter, slightly larger than a basketball hoop. Its cone-shaped design has a heat shield at the front, which will bear the brunt of the intense heat generated when the probe — released by the Photon spacecraft before arrival — hits the Venusian atmosphere at 40,000 kilometers per hour .