Life on Mars... who cares? Venus is where it's at, says Kiwi space pioneer Peter Beck.
The Rocket Lab founder - hundreds of millions of dollars richer after his start-up listed on the NASDAQ this week - says he's got "all my hopes pinned" on the hothouse planet when it comes to finding extraterrestrial life.
"We have a private mission to Venus in 2023 to search in the clouds for forms and traces of life," he told The AM Show on Thursday.
Rocket Lab, which was founded in New Zealand and is now based in the US, recorded two big milestones this week - going public and raising hundreds of million in cash, and getting the greenlight from US space agency for a Mars mission in 2024.
Rocket Lab will build two satellites to orbit the red planet that will launch on a NASA-built rocket. The deal was announced in June, but Rocket Lab still had some hoops to jump through. That mission - dubbed EscaPADE - isn't to look for life.
"The science goals of the mission are to understand the processes controlling the structure of Mars' hybrid magnetosphere and how it guides ion flows; understand how energy and momentum are transported from the solar wind through Mars' magnetosphere; and understand the processes controlling the flow of energy and matter into and out of the collisional atmosphere," according to NASA's website.
Beck told The AM Show it's "hard to really say" if life - or evidence of it in the past - will ever be found on Mars.
"To be perfectly honest with you, I've got all my hopes pinned on Venus."
Last year, scientists found evidence of a gas called phosphine in the planet's upper atmosphere. Venus is extremely hot - 465C at the surface - thanks to a runaway greenhouse gas effect.
The scientists behind that study said it was unlikely the amount of phosphine they detected would be there just by chance - on Earth it's produced by anaerobic life, which doesn't require oxygen, and the same might be the case in the clouds of Venus.
"Venus has a very interesting cloud layer," said Beck. "At around about 50km altitude, the atmosphere is actually quite tolerant to forms of organic life. There's some really weird stuff there. There's phosphine, that was recently discovered. We're working with the same science team that actually discovered the phosphine gases in that atmosphere - a marker for life - to actually put a probe there and see what we can find."
Rocket Lab's listing on the NASDAQ valued the company at NZ$7 billion, of which Beck has about a 12 percent share. He said it was testament to Rocket Lab's success in actually delivering payloads to space - just one of two companies in the world doing it on a regular basis, the other being Elon Musk's SpaceX.
"The team here at Rocket Lab are incredibly smart engineers, the bar is incredibly high. More importantly… we just execute, we just get on with it and get it done."