December 2, 2023

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Rocket Lab plans to launch a Venus mission in late 2024

Rocket Lab plans to launch a Venus mission in late 2024

WASHINGTON – Rocket Lab expects to launch a long-awaited, privately funded mission to Venus at the end of 2024, leveraging its experience on a mission to the moon.

Speaking at a meeting of the Venus Exploration Analysis Group, or VEXAG, on October 29, Christopher Mundy, lead system engineer for Rocket Lab’s interplanetary missions, said the company has set a launch date of December 30, 2024, for the launch of the rocket. Rocket Laboratory mission to Venus.

The mission, also called Venus Life Finder, will send a small spacecraft to Venus. A probe will detach and enter the planet’s atmosphere, equipped with one instrument, an autofluorometer, 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 MIT To search for evidence of life in the atmosphere of Venus.

Rocket Lab is collaborating with MIT and others on the mission, which relies on private funding. The mission was at one time expected to launch in May 2023, but the company delayed it because it was working on other priorities. “The Venus mission is an overnights and weekends project,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in an April interview. “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 sourcing various components from outside vendors,” he said, including the lander’s thermal protection system provided by NASA Ames Research Center and the main instrument from Droplet Measurement Technologies. They are expected to be delivered by the end of the year, allowing the spacecraft to be assembled, integrated and tested next year.

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The current schedule calls for a December 30 launch, although Mandy did not reveal the length of the mission’s launch period. The 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. This timeline would result in the spacecraft arriving at Venus on May 13, 2025.

The probe will separate from the flight phase and collect data for about five minutes as it descends through clouds in the planet’s upper atmosphere. The spacecraft will then transmit the data it collected for 20 minutes before reaching an altitude of about 22 kilometers, where the atmospheric pressure reaches 20 atmospheres, the limit the probe was designed to withstand. He added that internal temperatures will also reach the limits that the electronics can withstand at the same time.

The mission is designed to leverage the hardware and mission design used on CAPSTONE, the NASA-funded lunar mission launched on Electron in June 2022 using a cruise stage called the Lunar Photon. “It is the same bus that was designed, manufactured and launched for the CAPSTONE mission,” he said. “Since we are privately funded and trying to stay low cost, we reuse a lot of existing designs, which reduces the amount of engineering we have to do.”

While MIT scientists have plans for later, more ambitious missions, the Venus probe is primarily a Rocket Lab demonstration. “Rocket Lab itself currently has no ambitions to fund other missions,” he said. “We hope that by proving that this is possible, we may be able to generate more interest. The cost of this mission will be much lower than usual, so this may encourage government agencies to support this type of mission.”

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Among those attending the VEXAG meeting was Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “The increase in capability is great 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, which contributes to the launch, flight stage and entry probe, but it will likely fall into NASA’s smallest category of planetary science missions, called SIMPLex, with a maximum cost of $55 million. However, Glaze said NASA is delaying calls for future SIMPLEx missions due to limited budgets.