Look out Elon and Jeff … there’s a new billionaire in space town and he’s planning to boldly go – or at least boldly fund a trip – where no billionaire has gone before. Russian rich man Yuri Milner, one of the biggest players in the Russian part of the Internet, announced plans to pay for the first privately funded interplanetary space mission to search for life on Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth-largest moon and the solar system object considered to have the best chance of harboring some form of life. Is Milner serious or just trying to distract attention from revelations in the “Paradise Papers” about his involvement in helping the Russian government covertly invest in Facebook and Twitter?
“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?”
GeekWire reports that Milner made this statement at The Economist’s New Space Age conference at the Museum of Flight in Seattle last week. The ‘plumes’ are the columns of water vapor and simple hydrocarbons venting from the moon’s south polar region that were first seen and later passed through by the Cassini probe. The “more expensive mission” he’s referring to is NASA’s proposed $1 billion New Frontiers program which would not launch until at least the mid-2020s.
If you’re wondering whether he will accomplish this lofty goal, Milner is a billionaire who has put money into space projects before. He’s invested $100 million in the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence (Breakthrough Listen), another $100 million to send a fleet of nano-probes to the Alpha Centauri star system (Breakthrough Starshot) and more financial support to enhance the capability of the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and to launch – both for improving observations of the Alpha Centauri system.
Milner is obviously more focused on space exploration than Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who are investing their money in human flight, cargo transport to the space station and settlements on Mars. To put it another way, Musk and Bezos seem intent on making money with space travel while Milner wants to make a name for himself by finding what he calls a “smoking gun” for biochemical activity on Enceladus that should indicate the presence or at least the spark-ability for life.
If Milner can escape the political mess that the Paradise Papers have opened, he could be the force behind finding a new garden of paradise on Enceladus.