Saturn's moon Enceladus, with its ocean under its icy surface, looks like it could host some form of microbial life. Now, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner is considering funding a mission there.
Milner is currently behind several other projects that you might have heard of. Breakthrough Starshot is his plan to send a probe to Proxima Centauri, while Breakthrough Listen is looking for signals from intelligent life.
At The Economist's New Space Age conference in Seattle earlier this month, he outlined a possible new venture, which is to send a privately funded spacecraft to Enceladus and look for life. He said he had run a workshop with a group of experts to look into the possiblity, which is still in its very early stages.
“Can we design a low-cost, privately funded mission to Enceladus which can be launched relatively soon, and that can look more thoroughly at those plumes, to try to see what’s going on there?” he said.
Thanks to the Cassini mission, we know that Enceladus is firing out plumes of water from its subsurface ocean which many contain organics, the ingredients of life. The next step is to work out if there is actually any life in the ocean at all.
NASA is looking into a number of proposals to do this, including the Enceladus Life Finder (ELF). These missions, however, could take more than a decade to plan and launch. Milner wants to get there sooner.
The idea is still in its early stages, so there aren't any concrete ideas yet. It could be a flyby mission, which swung through the plumes once or several times. Or it could be an orbiter, which would take a bit longer to perform an intricate dance to get into orbit around Saturn or Enceladus.
"There are different ideas floating around on how do we send a mission to Enceladus to basically do a more thorough investigation of the plume, to see if maybe there are some amino acids there, or something of that nature, that would be sort of a smoking gun for life below the ice," he said.
"How can we, for the first time ever, design and send and launch a privately funded interplanetary science mission? So that's what we are thinking about."
Milner didn't elaborate on the plans, so we don't know any sort of time scale just yet. But when it comes to searching for life in the Solar System, maybe a Russian billionaire might provide the spark we need.