Amid the toxic politics, pandemic, violence, mass unemployment, and protests and the rest of the Dumpster fire that 2020 has become, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there’s a bigger picture. A much bigger picture.

Case in point, Rocket Lab, in typically modest fashion, launched a brand new spacecraft design this week and then waited to make sure it functioned properly before announcing it in a press conference today. CEO Peter Beck also said the company will launch one to Venus in 2023.

“We’re a pretty conservative bunch here,” Beck CEO said, “and we like to execute and deliver the product and then talk about it.”

The product in question is a modified version of the company’s Kick Stage used to give satellites a final push into orbit. This time, after kicking a satellite from Capella Space into orbit, the Kick Stage became a satellite in its own right, dubbed Photon.

The Photon spacecraft design now represents an affordable way for customers to get payloads into orbit and beyond quickly, Beck said.

It’s designed to be really, really configurable,” Beck said. “We weren’t trying to build something that’s just cheap and cheerful and really limited in what it can do.” Instead, “You could have a really exquisite platform that’s good for Earth imaging and pointing, right up to something that can carry over a kilowatt of power if you want to do comms.”

The craft can also leave Earth orbit, thanks to Rocket Lab’s HyperCurie engine on board.

Rocket Lab already has one deep space mission on the launch manifest, NASA’s CAPSTONE heading to the moon in 2021.

Beck said pricing for Photon would vary depending on the customer and mission requirements, but he used CAPSTONE as an example of Rocket Lab’s commitment to affordability. CAPSTONE will cost NASA $9.95 million.

“The NASA mission to the moon early next year, that was a $10 million mission. It includes launch and a Photon and all the operations associated with it. That gives you a bit of a sense. I mean, $10 million for launching a spacecraft on a moon mission is pretty crazy.”

Even crazier is Beck’s plan to launch a Photon to Venus the next time the planets are optimally aligned, in 2023. Why Venus? Venus doesn’t get enough attention, Beck says. He finds Venus more interesting than Mars for a couple of reasons.

  1. Venus is a good place to study the dynamics of climate change. As Beck put it, “Venus is Earth gone wrong.” A runaway greenhouse effect has rendered Venus a hellscape, but before then, it was apparently temperate.
  2. Given its milder ancient history, it’s a good place to look for life, even if only in the form of microbes living in the clouds. “The mission that I’m looking to do here is to probe those clouds with a reentry probe and take a wee peek.”

That will be a wee peek for a spacecraft, but a view of a vastly bigger picture for humankind.