Sep 23, 2020 - Science

Planetary science in the private space age

Illustration of a telescope in a briefcase.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The private spaceflight industry isn't just interested in being the manufacturing and infrastructure workhorse in space — some want in on exploration.

Why it matters: Studying planets from close range has long been the realm of governments able to fund and fly missions to distant locations like the Moon, Mars and Venus. Now, private companies are shooting for those destinations and they're prioritizing science at the same time.

What's happening: Rocket Lab, a small rocket manufacturer, is developing a private mission to Venus in conjunction with scientists in the hopes of finding out if life actually exists on the nearby world.

  • The company's CEO, Peter Beck, says he hopes the mission will be the first in a number of low-cost missions that could fly frequently and iterate on the science.
  • Virgin Orbit, another small rocket launch company, has also looked at partnering to launch small interplanetary missions for nations and others.
  • NASA has plans to bring private companies into its efforts to explore and maybe eventually mine the Moon, creating new possible pathways for planetary science in the process.

The big picture: Planetary missions today cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but with private companies getting in on the action, that price could go down significantly in the coming years.

  • And those cheap missions could give scientists a window into worlds — like Venus — that haven't been studied as closely as many would like.
  • Much of the interest around possible private interplanetary missions was sparked when NASA launched the small, relatively inexpensive MarCO satellites to Mars, proving that even little spacecraft could have high scientific return on distant missions.

Between the lines: Even private individuals could fund their own planetary missions soon.

  • "We have talked to non-government folks who are interested in planetary missions," Virgin Orbit's Will Pomerantz told me, adding that these individuals have the funds available to develop and launch them.
  • For his part, Beck sees Rocket Lab's mission to Venus as a "human duty" to help advance understanding of whether we're alone in the universe.
  • "If you have the ability to go and, at least in your lifetime, to answer a question like that, to just sit there and not do it is inexcusable from my perspective," Beck told me.

But, but, but: Philanthropy isn't a great business model, even for private companies hoping to advance humanity's exploration of the solar system.

  • "I think the challenge for overall commercial exploration is figuring out who the customers are beyond NASA," Elizabeth Frank, an applied planetary scientist at First Mode, a company focused on helping companies and governments solve problems in space and on Earth, told me.
  • Private planetary science missions also aren't beholden to the scientific priorities of the broader community, Frank added, meaning that, unless there's some type of oversight, they may answer questions that no one is really asking.
  • That kind of model could also raise questions similar to philanthropic funding of particular diseases or projects that may not speak as fully to the broader needs of the scientific community.

The bottom line: Private companies could transform the way scientists understand planets and moons throughout the solar system with small missions and small rockets that can answer big scientific questions.

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