One of the most astonishing discoveries of the now concluded Cassini space probe that spent years orbiting Saturn was that of plumes of water shooting out of cracks in the ice crust of Enceladus’ South Pole. Scientists believe that the plumes are coming from a subsurface ocean similar to the one that resides inside the ice crust of Europa. NASA is now contemplating a $1 billion New Frontiers mission to explore Enceladus further, flying through the plumes with a suite of sensors designed to detect organic material, to launch in the mid-2020s. Yuri Milner, a Russian born entrepreneur and philanthropist is also thinking about such a mission, privately financed, cheaper, and taking off sooner than the one NASA is thinking about.

Who is Yuri Milner?

Milner, who was born in Moscow but now resides in Los Altos, California, was an early backer of Facebook and Twitter, according to his profile in Forbes. He also helped to finance Airbnb and Spotify and has invested heavily in a number of Chinese high tech startups.

Milner is also the founder of the Breakthrough Prize, which offers cash rewards for scientists, and the Breakthrough Initiatives, which finances a couple of private space exploration initiatives. Those initiatives are Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million project to hunt for alien signals, and Breakthrough Starshot, a project to send a probe to another star system.

A Breakthrough Enceladus mission?

Milner recently announced his idea at a New Space Age conference sponsored by the Economist Magazine.

His organization has already formed a workshop to brainstorm how to launch a low-cost mission to Enceladus to find out what exactly is in those plumes and whether or not they indicate life in the subsurface ocean thought to reside in the moon of Saturn. Milner did not open his mind as to what kind of specific hardware might be used to lower the cost of getting to the Saturn system.

One way a low-cost expedition to Enceladus might be mounted would be to send a flotilla of CubeSats, breadbox-sized probes that are proving to be very popular due to their low cost and small size and mass. CubeSats are cheap enough that universities and medium-sized businesses could finance them.

A tiny propulsion unit, such as the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster that was crowdfunded several years ago, could propel the CubeSats to the Saturn system and maneuver them in a one-time flyby through the Enceladus plumes. Launching several at a time would ensure that some get through the 750 hundred million miles between Earth and Saturn and through the plumes.