NASA and Russian-Israeli billionaire Yuri Milner are working together on a mission to Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus to hunt for signs of life, reports New Scientist.
Milner, through his non-profit organization Breakthrough Initiatives, has suggested before that he wants to attempt such a mission, which would be the first private deep space mission. Last year, he said he had asked experts to look into the possibility of such a mission.
Now it looks like NASA are involved, committing $70,000 of staffing costs towards such a proposal, according to documents obtained by New Scientist. The idea is to send a mission on a flyby of Enceladus, equipped with instruments to hunt for signs of life.
“Breakthrough is proposing another fly-by mission to sample the moon’s plumes, but this time with equipment to detect extra-terrestrial life,” science journalist Mark Harris reports. “The agreements make it clear that Breakthrough would be leading and paying for the mission, and have sole authority to determine whether it goes ahead.”
Enceladus has been a prime target to look for life ever since the Cassini probe detected plumes erupting from the moon’s south pole, believed to originate in a subsurface ocean. The probe detected hydrogen and organic materials in these plumes, with some suggestions there may be hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.
Such vents on Earth provide food and energy for life at extreme depths. But as Enceladus’ ocean is locked beneath tens of kilometers of ice, accessing these vents themselves would be difficult.
The plumes, however, offer a unique possibility to hunt for life. Flying through them, Cassini was able to sample the ocean, although its instruments were limited as the plumes were not known to exist before it arrived. A dedicated mission could significantly advance these efforts.
And those plumes may also rain down onto the surface of Enceladus, meaning that a lander could directly sample this material. Breakthrough’s mission wouldn’t include a lander, but there have been other proposals to send one to the moon.
At the Breakthrough Prize ceremony at NASA’s Ames Research Center on Sunday, November 4, Milner had also suggested he was looking at ways to privately fund a search for life. "We're thinking, within our foundation, is there something we can do, privately funded, which will supplement the government-funded projects?" he said, reported Space.com.
The proposed launch date for such a mission is not yet known. But NASA and Breakthrough are expected to make a decision about whether to go ahead with the idea in December 2019. For now, watch this space.