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Oliver Morton and Yuri Milner
Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, at right, chats with The Economist’s Oliver Morton during the “New Space Age” conference at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner today laid out his vision to send the first privately funded interplanetary space mission to look for life at the Saturnian moon Enceladus — but first he had to address less lofty matters.

Milner has been in the news for the past week because newly published confidential documents known as the “Paradise Papers” revealed that two firms controlled by the Russian government backed his early investments in Facebook and Twitter.

So, of course, that was the first topic Milner was asked about during an onstage fireside chat at The Economist’s “New Space Age” conference at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

The connections have sparked controversy because of concerns about Russian interference in America’s political debate, with social media used as a propaganda tool. Milner pointed out that his investments were made during a different time, when the Obama administration was trying to hit a “reset button” in its relations with Moscow.

“There was a lot of excitement at the time,” Milner said. “A lot of capital went into Russia from the U.S., and a lot of capital also went in the opposite direction.”

He noted that the Russian investments were paid back several years ago. “From my standpoint, that’s the end of the story,” Milner said.

“When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, behind the Iron Curtain, my father always told me that I should try to stay away from politics,” the 55-year-old founder of the investment firm DST Global said. “I’ve tried to follow his advice since then.”

During a follow-up interview, Milner told GeekWire that the “Paradise Papers” controversy hasn’t had any effect on his space projects.

Searching for life beyond Earth

The bulk of Milner’s talk focused on his financial support for the search for life beyond Earth, under the aegis of the Breakthrough Initiatives. Over the past couple of years, Milner has pledged $100 million to boost the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, and another $100 million to send swarms of nano-probes through the Alpha Centauri star system.

In addition to those two campaigns — known respectively as Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Starshot — the Breakthrough Watch program is supporting enhancements that should boost the capability of the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope to observe the Alpha Centauri system from its vantage point in Chile.

In league with Australia’s University of Sydney, Milner’s team is also looking into the prospects for deploying a small-scale space telescope that’s optimized to observe Alpha Centauri. The design under consideration is known as the Telescope for Orbital Locus Interferometric Monitoring of Alpha ceN, or TOLIMAN, an acronym that spells out one of Alpha Centauri’s earlier names.

So far, the Breakthrough Listen radio search has turned up some intriguing signals, but no clear evidence of E.T.

“We actually found something we had not been looking for, which is radio signals from those mysterious objects that are called FRBs [fast radio bursts]. … We have been able to identify characteristics of those objects that were not clear from previous observations,” Milner said.

Some have speculated that high-frequency FRBs could be associated with extraterrestrial civilizations, but Milner said it’s “more likely there’s a natural explanation for this.”

Funding a mission to Enceladus

The latest twist is a plan to bring the search for life beyond Earth closer to home. In the past, astrobiologists have speculated that microbial life could lurk far below the surface of Mars, or beneath a miles-thick layer of ice on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

“But the most promising recent candidate is Enceladus, one of the moons of Saturn,” Milner said.

That mention brought a cry of “yes!” from Carolyn Porco, a planetary scientist who headed the imaging team for NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn and is a strong advocate for a follow-up mission to Enceladus.

Instruments on the Cassini orbiter charted plumes of water spraying out from a series of fissures in Enceladus’ icy surface. When the spacecraft flew through the plumes, it picked up the signature of molecules that could be associated with organic chemistry.

The Cassini mission’s readings suggest that there’s a saltwater lake or ocean beneath Enceladus’ ice, and that there just might be organisms living in that water.

Milner said he and other interested parties (including Porco) have been discussing what it would take to find a “smoking gun” for biochemical activity at Enceladus.

“We formed a 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, try to see what’s going on there?” he said.

NASA and the European Space Agency have been considering several proposals for Enceladus missions, including ELF, ELSAH and E2T. But Milner said it could take as long as 10 years to get those more expensive projects off the ground. He wants to send something through Enceladus’ plumes sooner.

Milner told GeekWire that the time frame for the mission he has in mind is still up in the air. The mission’s potential price tag is also yet to be determined, although he said he’s sure it’ll be cheaper than a full-blown NASA mission. For now, the only expense is the cost of doing a feasibility study.

“And if I am funding the study, I can do something there,” Milner said.

GeekWire was one of the media sponsors of The Economist’s “New Space Age” conference. For videos from the conference, check out the Facebook page for The Economist Events.

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