It's an inevitability that when we find extraterrestrial life, despite the funding and civic pride and hope the nations of the world have put into their space programs, it's going to be a rich dude that finds it. When you've got more money than you can count in a lifetime, the reasonable thing to do is hunt for aliens. What else is there to do? Yachts get boring after number 7 or 8, and you're guaranteed an immortal legacy if you're responsible for first contact with extraterrestrial life. Russian billionaire Yuri Milner is trying to be that rich dude, and he recently signed an agreement with NASA for their help with his planned mission to hunt for alien life on Saturn's icy moon Enceladus.
According to New Scientist, NASA is providing concepts, plans, and consulting work for Milner's mission, which would be the first ever privately funded mission to deep space. From their report:
Agreements signed by NASA and Milner’s non-profit Breakthrough Starshot Foundation in September show that the organisations are working on scientific, technical and financial plans for the ambitious mission. NASA has committed over $70,000 to help produce a concept study for a flyby mission. The funds won’t be paid to Breakthrough but represent the agency’s own staffing costs on the project.
Non-profit is a funny word. Some things are worth more than money and discovering alien life represents an incalculable profit.
The Breakthrough Initiatives were founded in 2015 by Milner and his wife Julia, their board of directors includes Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg. The late physicist Stephen Hawking was on the board of directors, but we live in a world where the Facebook guy is going to discover aliens instead of Stephen Hawking. Let that sink in. Not too deep though, it's incredibly depressing.
Breakthrough Starshot is just one of the initiatives that the foundation is undertaking. Others include designing tech like solar sails and there are initiatives to fund both the listening for extraterrestrial civilizations and the sending of our own messages that someone might listen to. Which we can all agree is a terrible idea.
As to why they're choosing Enceladus, the ice moon represents one of our best chances for finding life outside the cozy blanket of Earth's atmosphere. Enceladus is cold. Its surface temperature never reaches above −324 °F (−198 °C). Despite its surface temperature, the Cassini spacecraft found evidence of a large ocean of liquid water beneath the ice surface in 2014. Cassini also observed geysers of ice and other compounds shooting into space, shows internal geothermal activity. Enceladus is locked in orbital resonance with another moon, Dione, and the resulting tidal activity in Enceladus' subsurface ocean seems to be driving that activity. There's something else too: on June 27, 2018, NASA revealed that Cassini had detected complex organic matter in the ice jets coming out of Enceladus.
So we've got a water ocean, geothermal activity, and complex organic matter being shot into space from that ocean. Yeah, that seems life a fair place to look for life.
We'll see. The beginning states of the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative will begin next year, as the team begins working through the concepts and planning phases. For all the problems with ultra-wealthy individuals making themselves the standard-bearers of humanity, there is an undeniable truth that money makes things happen. If enough money is thrown at these projects then it's a sure bet that something will get done. What it is and what we'll find is anyone's guess at this point, but it will probably be pretty neat.