Rocket Lab planning private Venus mission


Capitalism in space: According to its founder and CEO Peter Beck, the smallsat rocket company Rocket Lab is now planning a private Venus mission to be launched in 2023.

The 2023 mission will employ Rocket Lab’s two-stage Electron booster and Photon satellite bus. The 57-foot-tall (17 meters) Electron is a viable option for interplanetary missions now, thanks to recent advances in battery technology that boost the performance of the rocket’s Rutherford engines. With that improvement, Electron is now capable of lofting up to 660 lbs. (300 kilograms) of payload to low-Earth orbit instead of 500 lbs. (225 kg), Rocket Lab representatives have said.

“It opens the window for Venus, and it opens the window for recovery,” Beck said. (The company is working to recover and reuse the Electron’s first stage. Returning boosters will make guided re-entries to Earth’s atmosphere, which will require more fuel, which in turn will require more powerful engines to get the added weight off the ground.)

Photon, which has yet to make its spaceflight debut, won’t descend into Venus’ sulfurous skies on the coming mission. The current plan calls for the spacecraft to deploy one or more smaller probes into the planet’s atmosphere, Beck wrote in a Twitter post on Aug. 4.

There is a certain irony here, if Beck launches a private interplanetary science mission ahead of Elon Musk. Musk created the rocket company SpaceX expressly because he wanted to do a private science mission to Mars and needed an affordable rocket to do it. Since then he has been so focused on making that rocket company succeed he has not devoted any effort to that initial science mission concept. Beck, who came much later, now appears set to beat Musk to this first milestone.

12 comments

  • Jay

    It is an interesting article. Rocket lab is the dark horse in the commercial space race and they have passed Blue Origin by sending payloads into orbit.
    I noticed at the end of the video about the mission, there was the NASA logo. Is NASA paying for it or is it a partner in some way? Is NASA being used for the Deep Space Network as a trade for the information from the mission?

    This is a spin-off topic: Will these private rocket companies start their own deep space networks?

  • Richard M

    “Since then he has been so focused on making that rocket company succeed he has not devoted any effort to that initial science mission concept.”

    I doubt you were making this a criticism of Elon, Bob, but just the same, I can hardly blame Musk for channeling his focus in this way, because however important a science mission to Mars or Venus might be, what he is attempting to do now is of far greater importance.

    If Peter Beck gets a satellite to Venus before Elon Musk gets anything to Mars, it’s a happy day for everyone.

    (Come to that, SpaceX *has* launched a probe to another planet already – it’s just that the planet was the Moon, and the probe was not operated by SpaceX, but by SpaceIL.)

  • Diane Wilson

    Musk has said that SpaceX is a transportation company. He’ll get you to Mars. What you send to Mars is up to you. Starlink does change that a bit, because SpaceX makes those satellites, and will operate them. It would be useful at some point to have a Starlink launch to Mars.

    Anyway, these are very different cases. A smallsat to Venus is by definition going to be an orbiter, or maybe a drone for upper atmosphere. There’s no way that a smallsat is going to attempt entry and landing on Venus.

    Musk’s focus on Mars is quite different: large payload, entry, descent, and landing, and return. Mars and Venus present very different problems for EDL, and I’d argue that Mars is easier as a first test case.

  • Jay

    Diane,
    I agree with you on the small sats lto Venus. At first when I read this, I was reminded on how much delta-V is needed to get to these planets from Earth. I thought it would be easier to orbit Venus than Mars, in the beginning the numbers favor Venus, but when it comes to putting the satellite in orbit, Mars wins.

  • Richard M: No criticism of Musk was intended. I just find the situation a bit ironic.

  • Ian C.

    Bob, there was Red Dragon with the NASA water detection payload for Mars intended for 2018/2020. When NASA didn’t want to fund the retropropulsion thrusters, SpaceX scrapped the whole thing in 2017 and pivoted to what eventually would become Starship/Super Heavy.

  • LocalFluff

    That’s a great idea! With 300 kg in LEO one can do interesting things. Venus is pretty easy to reach, that’s why it is used for gravity sling shots so often. One idea has been a probe that skims its upper atmosphere (not entering orbit) to collect a sample of it. And then measure what kinds of isotopes are there. It should let us know if Venus is still volcanically active, or for how long it has been inactive.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Tomorrow, Musk announces “yellow dragon” to compete..
    (sarc)

    I can see why the priority is Mars. But Venus does offer mysteries to solve.

  • LocalFluff

    @sippin_bourbon
    I can see the purpose with stacking a Starship with selected congressmen and so called journalists, sending it to Venus instead of to Mars. (But I suspect they would feel at home and thrive even there.)

  • Andi

    They certainly should feel right at home on Venus, amidst all that hot air and acidic environment.

  • Tom

    I would think that Elon’s approach to succeeding in the Rocket industry springs from one totally unique concept; Conquer the Industry.

    He is not building perfect vehicles in clean rooms and relying on a vast array of government contracted engineers and managers. He is build an assembly line to mass produce functional, inexpensive, easy-to-maintain ships that have short turnaround times between missions. And he’s doing it as quickly as possible. Today, I saw one of his new Raptor engines (SN29) sitting on the ground in the dusty, windy heat of a south Texas facility which he scratched out of a lonely river delta. And not a clean room in sight.

    His M.O. reminds me of the U.S. during World War II. FDR had built huge amounts of effective, low cost and serviceable planes and tanks which were delivered to our soldiers with much haste. They weren’t perfect but they were were on the scene in time and in overwhelming numbers. As our soldiers used them, their designs were improved as lessons were learned and the need for them persisted.

    Elon is quite simply conquering space and no one is even close to being in his league much less catching up with him. Certainly not state actors. The old ways of the Rocket Industry are on the fast track to obsolescence and those that insist on staying the course will follow soon after.

  • Edward

    Tom,
    I’m not sure if this comment is in agreement or disagreement with your comment, but Musk and Beck are both treating their companies as regular for-profit, fixed-price, commercial companies. They develop their systems rapidly to get a jump on the competition, spend as little money as possible on the development, get their products generating revenue as soon as possible, and accept inefficiencies and comprise when necessary to achieve these goals. Neither focuses on only one customer (a monopsony) but on the customer base as a whole. These factors have been unusual in the rocket business. At the moment, each is a virtual monopoly in the area where their launch vehicles work (e.g. weight and orbit limitations).

    As SpaceX gets into the communication business, Rocket Lab is getting into the exploration business. Robert is right that there is an irony that Musk chose as his secondary space business a product that is so different than his original purpose for getting into this industry. After all, Musk called his company Space Exploration Technologies, not Space Communication Technologies.

    However, Musk can be more sure that communications is profitable than Beck can be sure that exploration is ready to be profitable.

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