Yuri Milner: "where in the solar system can life exist?"

The most famous Russian technology investor Yuri Milner in 2015 announced the launch of a program to search for life in the universe. He described how the project is progressing and reported on new space initiatives.
Origin source
- You have said many times that space for you is charity, a hobby, but not a business. The latest success of Ilona Mask did not make you change your mind?

"Space is destiny." (Laughs.) Change your mind - do you mean to start doing something commercial? No, I did not change my mind. I was born in an academic family, the Physics Department of Moscow State University, I read Joseph Shklovsky's book, "The Universe, Life, Mind" - remember this book? Everything goes from there. Further - deviation from the physical trajectory: business school, business, technology, the Internet, investment and the preservation of all the same children's dreams associated with the universe and the cosmos. For me, unlike the same Mask and Bezos, the basic idea is still the search for life in the universe. For me, space is a means, not a goal.

"But, if I'm not confusing anything, the first space project you had was an investment in the start-up Planet Labs, which launches satellites for commercial purposes." Does she stay with you now?

- If you look at the commercial side of this, then there is such an investment, and so far all goes well with them. But this is one of dozens of portfolio investments, it might well not be. I would not associate it with the fact that I do non profit and that now it takes about 20% of my time. In this part everything revolves around life in the Universe, life in the Universe.

- You have four Breakthrough initiatives related to the search for this life: Listen, Message, Starshot and Watch.

- Yes, and there is one more in the preliminary analysis stage, it is called Enceladus - a flight to Enceladus, a satellite of Saturn. There is a logical construction, which looks something like this: if you think about life in the universe, everything immediately breaks up into two large subgroups. The first - an intelligent life, the second - life in general, any of its kinds. Reasonable life is a project of Breakthrough Listen. If this is a reasonable civilization, they too, most likely, will use radio and lasers, because this is a natural and cheap way of communication. They, as we now, will radiate into space - television, negotiations with satellites from the Earth, tracking of planes by radars, etc. With the help of a sufficiently serious radio telescope, which even our civilization can already afford, such a radiation can be detected at a great distance.

"Even if they do not try to tell us anything, say, send?"

- Yes, this is what is called leakage, a leak. Therefore, this is a fairly meaningful action - to try to catch some signal that is either sent purposefully or occurs in the leakage mode. We want to closely look at a million nearby stars and a hundred nearest to the Milky Way galaxies. Already looked at the Andromeda galaxy, for example.

- Last year, the first results of the Listen project were announced, as I understand, rather modest: what is their essence?

- Naturally, we did not find a reasonable civilization, otherwise you would have learned about it. (Laughs.) Within the framework of the project, we studied several thousand stars, did not find anything dramatic, but found quite interesting things related to the so-called FRB, fast radio bursts, in Russian this is called "rapid radio bursts". We did not discover this phenomenon, but it is interesting and new. This is a fairly active topic in astronomy. And we managed to get interesting information in a certain spectral range, which was not previously investigated. That is, it turns out, we are doing some science, not related to the search for extraterrestrial civilizations. This is a by-product, but nevertheless it is interesting and valuable.

"Simple life, most likely, is extremely common"

- Why did they start with this project, and not with the space nanocar? By the way, what happens to this project?

- We will return to the ship's project, of course, but let me logically finish the idea. The Listen project is much more meaningful now than, say, five years ago, due to the fact that there was a mission called "Kepler" - a large telescope launched by NASA into space. As a result of his activities, we now know that the number of planets of the Earth's type in the Milky Way can be of the order of 100 billion. With such a large number of candidates - with liquid water on the surface, atmosphere and so on and so on - it is reasonable to assume that we are not alone. Especially considering that other civilizations could have had a handicap [unequal conditions], connected with the fact that the universe exists 14 billion years, and our planet was formed about 5 billion years ago. All these arguments logically indicate that if this is not a very expensive project for our civilization, then it must be done. Not me, so someone else, we all need to allocate a small fraction of our resources to look and be in Listen mode.

"Until it's very expensive, right?"

- Yes, $ 100 million for ten years. I believe that this is a very reasonable waste of resources. Then move to another large subgroup - just life in the universe, not necessarily reasonable. There is a simple life - the same bacteria, viruses and stuff. If you talk with astrobiologists, especially in the last ten years, many of them tend to believe that simple life is likely to be extremely common. For example, due to how quickly it was born on our planet. The idea is that if certain conditions exist for a billion years, then simply because of natural causes and the huge number of experiments conducted by nature, a simple life in one form or another will appear. Scientists are growing confident that the barrier is not as serious as previously thought.

On Earth, in fact, there is no such niche that would not be occupied, everywhere there is the possibility of survival - in the cold, in the heat, under the water. And we have a number of initiatives within this paradigm. The first is what is called Breakthrough Watch. This is the financing of several projects related to the improvement of ground-based optical telescopes so that it is possible for the first time in history to obtain a direct image, direct image of planets that rotate around the stars located near the Sun. In particular, there is a project with the European Observatory in Chile on this topic.

- How much is this project worth?

- Hundreds of thousands - a few million dollars. This is about outer space beyond the solar system. Then the question arises: Are there any places inside the solar system where life can exist? Analysis shows that there are several such places. For example, just this Saturn satellite Enceladus.

"Enceladus is the number one goal"

- Why this satellite?

- There, again, recently, visited the mission of NASA, which managed to find a number of things. First - under the ice on this satellite is a liquid ocean. Second, and this is the most dramatic and surprising - in this ice there are cracks, and through these cracks splashes into the cosmos, "fountains" up 200 km up. And there is an amazing opportunity, flying through this fountain, to take a water sample without drilling ice. The ice is thick there, it is technologically difficult to drill it, but flying through the space where there are elements of this liquid, water, was really interesting. If you scoop water from our World Ocean, then immediately find a lot of bacteria. The idea is to send a mission there, which will have special equipment that will investigate special biological markers, because the previous mission was imprisoned for another. Enceladus is the number one goal.

Another goal is probably Europe, a satellite of Jupiter. There is also a big ocean, thick ice, but there, for a number of reasons, there is less likelihood of these fountains appearing, the exit of liquid to the surface. Further interesting object is Mars. But there, in order to find some signs of a past, most likely, life, it is necessary to drill a surface, possibly several meters. Technologically complex, but possible, is quite complex.

And there is an object like Venus, to which, incidentally, it was the Soviet spacecraft that sent the most. There is an interesting idea associated with the atmosphere of Venus, because there can not be anything on the surface, but in the atmosphere, theoretically some elements of life could have been preserved. Venus is also interesting because, according to physical models, it was once, in general, like the Earth. Several billion years ago on Venus there were oceans, seas, atmosphere, everything there was very similar to how the Earth looks now. And in this sense it is theoretically possible that if life on Venus was formed initially in terrestrial conditions, it could then, in the process of worsening the situation, occupy some other niches, including in the atmosphere. Venus is an interesting example of what can happen to the Earth if there is an irreversible greenhouse effect.

- I'll ask again just in case: we do not discuss the option in which reasonable inhabitants of Venus boarded spacecraft and flew, for example, to Earth?

- No, it's not about that. We assume that if there could be a simple life, it could survive even in such a situation. Not on the surface - there is a very high temperature, namely in an atmosphere where there is a layer in which roughly "terrestrial" atmospheric pressure and "terrestrial" temperature. And there is still quite an exotic object called Titan, this is also a satellite of Saturn. There is a completely different situation, there are seas and oceans from methane, and if there is any life there, then it is radically different, not the same one to which we are accustomed.

"Private investment can play a complementary role"

- Have you listed the five goals of this fifth initiative, and it already has some name?

- Not yet, but Enceladus could be one of the first candidates. Astrobiologists believe that there already is encouraging evidence and it's just necessary to fly a check. A lot of preliminary work has been done, it is more or less clear what to look for where and how. And here just is some influence of my friend Ilona Mask, but it's not direct, but mediated.

What did he prove? That private entrepreneurs can, for relatively little money, do things in space. It would be interesting for me to demonstrate that private investment can do something, an interesting science in space. This is almost nothing private entrepreneurs do - now almost everything that happens in space and is not financed by the state, still has a commercial nature. And if we are talking about fundamental research, it's still a charity. And here, it seems to me, there is an opportunity to show that with budgets much smaller than that of state space agencies, it is possible to do something interesting in the scientific plan.

- There is a popular opinion that private space exploration is developing now precisely because it has comprehensible commercial purposes, and the state is in a kind of stagnation due to the fact that its initially main military goal has ceased to be of interest to the states.

- I still go in the other direction - this is purely scientific research, they were also financed by the state earlier, though in a larger volume than now. It seems to me that there is space for private investors who do not compete with state organizations. If you take as an example Enceladus - at some point there will go a mission that will cost billions of dollars, on which there will be a large number of different equipment. The state usually finances such significant projects if they have a high probability of success. But private investment here can play a complementary role: it can be a mission that costs not billions, but tens of millions of dollars, which can go much earlier and which can pave the way for public investment in this area. A model that seems to me the most reasonable and attractive, not competitive, like Ilona Mask, but complementary.

- Do you see a mission to Enceladus completely private or will you attract government money? And many questions - on what to fly, when, on what to launch the device, who will do it?

- Such a device is supposed to be financed privately. As for launching, there is an opportunity for negotiations, because if the device weighs several hundred kilograms, and not several tons, then a situation is possible in which it will be a by-product: a large missile is flying, carrying the main cargo and incidentally this cargo too. There are options for a separate launch, now it is much cheaper than before.

- Do you already have plans for flight dates or is it a distant future?

- Now the stage is more of a preliminary analysis and definition of goals, but, I think, not far off is some announcement about the first project in this area. I think we need to emphasize another important factor: if we can detect an independently emerged life, even at the level of a simple life, bacterial, if we can find a second creation in the solar system, this can have fundamental consequences for the search for life in the Universe in whole. This will mean that life is most likely very common. Much more than we previously assumed. And, if in one place it can arise twice, independently of each other, it will say that life actually appears automatically, if there are acceptable conditions.

"Science can not be international"

- How are things going with Starshot project, which should fly to Alpha Centauri?

- This is a separate project - I would say, the first practical attempt to scientifically and engineerly substantiate the possibility of interstellar travel. Here we came to the conclusion that we need to forget about the pictures from the "Star Wars", that we do not need to build big starships and think in the science fiction mode, because we will not have such a long time. And you need to reason in a more practical way - maybe you need to send something small, easy and at high speed. And now there are research works in this area in order to determine how realistic this is. Here we also announced a budget of $ 100 million for research and development to see if we can really do this within 25-35 years.

Of course, in this project, if we understand that it is realistic to do this, cooperation of both private investors and state organizations will be required. In case of successful development of this project, I imagine something like CERN - that is, an international organization with the participation of many countries. Because it is such a large-scale project that hardly any single country or private company can do it. But all this is potentially in the future, now the first stage is going on, exclusively private investments aimed at carrying out the first stage of research work, which will take several years.

- Can these six initiatives be added to the sixth, seventh, eighth?

- Still, they have a common connecting ideology, which is called "life in the universe." If there are other ideas and directions related to the development of this topic, such initiatives may appear. But there is just such a grind on the study of this particular issue, and simply adding other initiatives is not very sensible, other entrepreneurs can do it and successfully do it. In any case, it seems that there is much less to go on purely scientific direction than to develop commercial space.

- Recently your friend and colleague Stephen Hawking died on some of these initiatives. This can affect the implementation of projects?

"Because of the state of health in which he was in recent years, he certainly could not take an active part, but his moral support was extremely important. He throughout his life was interested in the theme of life in the universe, and I think he was a little pleased that someone privately began to do this. Communication with him was very inspiring and inspiring. Well, his approval of specific technical solutions was also important, in particular the Starshot project. Well, of course, it was a unique person, probably the most famous person who personified science and was, as they say, celebrity, a celebrity, not only a scientist, but also a communicator. Of course, it will be greatly missed.

- Did the policy, the cooling of relations between Russia and the US, influence the implementation of these initiatives?

- Fundamental science has always been international. Even in the days of the Cold War and the confrontation between the Soviet Union and America, there were joint projects, there was still the Mir station in space. I think that science, especially the fundamental one, can not but be international. So it has been for hundreds of years, and I hope that this will continue. Initially, people agreed that any scientific discoveries can not be patented, they by definition belong to the whole of humanity. My charitable projects in this area are aimed at supporting exactly this kind of activity.

- You do not plan to stop or curtail any programs?

- No, I do not plan.