Enceladus - February 15 2016

As horrifying as it may sound, there’s a non-zero chance a billionaire will be the first to discover alien life. Recently, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced that he’s taking his dabbling in Space Stuff to the next level by planning a mission to explore Saturn’s mysterious moon, Enceladus.

Milner, who founded his extraterrestrial-hunting program Breakthrough Initiatives in 2015, says his company might fly a spacecraft through the icy plumes extending out of Enceladus’ south pole. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft sampled material from these plumes in 2005 and later found evidence of hydrothermal vents within a subterranean ocean. Since life on Earth evolved around hydrothermal vents, some scientists think microbial life could be hiding around Enceladus’.

Enceladus
View of Enceladus

“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 said at The Economist’s “New Space Age” summit last week.

Yuri Milner

The “NASA mission” Milner alluded to is the space agency’s New Frontiers program. As Space.com points out, two of the twelve candidates NASA is considering for a billion-dollar uncrewed mission to launch in the 2020s are Enceladus-focused. Milner did not mention specifics of how much Breakthrough Initiatives would be willing to spend on a mission to Enceladus, or when it anticipates launching.

At this stage, Milner’s plans are far from concrete, and it’s tough to gage how serious his company is about the mission based on one speech. Still, it’s something for ET enthusiasts — and honestly, NASA — to consider. Just don’t hold your breath for a space narwhal discovery any time soon. (Sorry.)