Search For Alien Life: Private-Funded Mission To Saturn Moon Enceladus May Precede NASA By Years

Norman Byrd

The search for alien life may soon be expanded to include a privately funded mission to Saturn's moon, Enceladus, one that would precede a future trip by NASA by several years. Breakthrough Initiatives, the alien contact project sponsored by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, is currently open to the idea and could, within the next few years, launch a spacecraft designed to attempt to confirm the presence of life in the liquid depths suspected to exist beneath the surface of the moon.

As recently reported, the discovery of huge ice geysers erupting through the frozen surface of Enceladus not only confirmed that the satellite had an ocean under its icy shell, the plumes provided scientists with a target where the search for alien life might be conducted without having a probe make a surface landing and extract testable samples. More precisely, the probe would fly through the arcing plumes, which are composed of water vapor, in an effort to potentially discover living organisms (or indications of the presence of alien life) within the vaporous emanations and the material projected along with it.

The idea for the fly-through came after NASA's probe, Cassini, made several passes through the plumes. However, not being equipped with instruments that could possibly detect signatures of life, the question as to whether or not Enceladus was home to said life was left unanswered. It also opened up the discussion of preparing the next mission to the 313-mile-wide moon so astrobiologists could test for signs of life.

Milner, speaking at The Economist magazine's inaugural global space summit (entitled "A New Space Age"), said he and his team at Breakthrough Initiatives were looking into the viability of mounting a mission that would explore the plumes.

"We formed a sort of little workshop around this idea: 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 and try to see what's going there ahead of a more expensive mission that NASA is considering right now, which might take maybe 10 years to launch?"

Milner continued: "How can we, for the first time ever, design and send — launch, actually — a privately funded interplanetary science mission?"

The answer may very well be such a mission, given that NASA's projected mission will cost somewhere in the billion-dollar range, not to mention the very real possibility that a planned mission might get axed due to budgetary considerations.

Yuri Milner's Breakthrough Initiatives already oversees the $100 billion Breakthrough Listen project, which, like its counterpart SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), actively searches via antennae and other detection apparatus for alien life in the cosmos, and the $100 billion Breakthrough Starshot project, which has a goal of designing spacecraft for an exploratory effort to the nearest stars.

Prior to Milner and company announcing work on their new project, the search for alien life took another proactive approach in October with a signal designed and transmitted by METI (Messaging ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) in an effort to contact an alien intelligence. According to CNET, the organization transmitted the signal on three successive days, directing the message at exoplanet GJ273b, a world orbiting a star 12 light years away. Given the distance and the potential that there exists an alien civilization advanced enough to receive and understand the message, an answer is not expected for roughly 25 years.

[Featured Image by Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock]