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  • richardmitnick 11:03 am on November 28, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A billionaire’s plan to search for life on Enceladus, , , , , Breakthrough Starshot Foundation, , , , Yuri Milner   

    From EarthSky: “A billionaire’s plan to search for life on Enceladus” 


    From EarthSky

    November 27, 2018
    Paul Scott Anderson

    Russian entrepreneur and physicist Yuri Milner wants to send a probe back to Saturn’s ocean moon Enceladus, to search for evidence of life there. NASA wants to help him.

    Illustration showing plumes on Saturnian moon Enceladus. Illustration: NASA /JPL-Caltech

    Saturn’s moon Enceladus is very small – only about 310 miles (500 kilometers) across – but it may hold clues to one of the biggest mysteries of all time – are we alone? Beneath the icy crust lies a global salty ocean, not too different from Earth’s oceans. Could that ocean contain life of some kind? That is a question that many scientists – and the public alike – would like to find an answer for. Enceladus, however, is very far away and planetary missions are expensive – but there may be an ideal solution.

    Billionaire entrepreneur and physicist Yuri Milner wants to send a private mission back to this intriguing world, and NASA wants to help him. This incredible idea was first reported in New Scientist on November 8, 2018 (please note this article is behind a paywall). It was then reported by Gizmodo the same day.

    “It looks like NASA will offer billionaire entrepreneur and physicist Yuri Milner help on the first private deep-space mission: a journey designed to detect life, if it exists, on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, according to documents acquired by New Scientist.

    New Scientist’s Mark Harris reports:

    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.

    The teams will be working in the project plan and concepts through next year, New Scientist reports.”

    Enceladus is a very small moon, but it has a global ocean beneath its icy crust. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech.

    Breakthrough Initiatives, part of Milner’s non-profit Breakthrough Starshot Foundation, would lead and pay for the mission, with consultation from NASA. The board of Breakthrough Initiatives includes billionaires Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg, and the late physicist Stephen Hawking. Breakthrough Initiatives has been studying various mission concepts for space exploration, including a solar sail to nearby stars, advancing the technology to discover other Earth-like planets and sending out a direct message, similar to the previous Arecibo message, specifically to try and catch the attention of aliens.

    Solar sail. Breakthrough Starshot image. Credit: Breakthrough Starshot

    This radio message was transmitted toward the globular cluster M13 using the Arecibo telescope in 1974. Image Credit Arne Nordmann (norro) Wikipedia

    NAIC Arecibo Observatory operated by University of Central Florida, Yang Enterprises and UMET, Altitude 497 m (1,631 ft).

    Enceladus has become a prime target in the search for extraterrestrial life in our solar system, since its subsurface ocean is thought to be quite similar to oceans on Earth, thanks to data from the Cassini mission, which orbited Saturn from 2004 until September of last year.

    NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini-Huygens Spacecraft

    Scientists already know it is salty and there is evidence for geothermal activity on the ocean floor, such as “smoker” volcanic vents on the bottom of oceans on Earth. Such geothermal vents – at least on Earth – are oases for a wide variety of ocean life despite the darkness and cold temperatures away from the vents.

    Cassini also investigated the plumes of Enceladus – huge “geysers” of water vapor erupting through cracks in the surface at the south pole of Enceladus. Cassini flew right through some of them, analyzing their composition, and found they contain water vapor, ice particles, complex organic molecules and salts. Cassini wasn’t capable of finding life directly, but it did find valuable clues and hints that there may well be something alive in that alien ocean, even if only microbes.

    Earlier this year, New Scientist also reported that there may already be some tentative evidence for microbes in Enceladus’s ocean [Nature Communications]. Cassini detected traces of methane in the water vapor plumes, and when scientists tested computer models of conditions in the ocean, they found that microbes that emit methane after combining hydrogen and carbon dioxide – called methanogens – could easily survive there. According to Chris McKay at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California:

    “This [team] has taken the first step to showing experimentally that methanogens can indeed live in the conditions expected on Enceladus.”

    The scientists found that the microbes were able to thrive at temperatures and pressures likely found in Enceladus’s oceans, ranging from 0 to 90 degrees Celsius, and up to 50 Earth atmospheres. They also found that olivine minerals, thought to exist in the moon’s core, could be chemically broken down to produce enough hydrogen for methanogens to thrive.

    Another proposed return mission to Enceladus is the Enceladus Life Finder (ELF), which would orbit Saturn and make repeated passes through the plumes – like Cassini, but with updated instruments. Image via Jonathan Lunine.

    Another proposed return mission to Enceladus is the Enceladus Life Finder (ELF), which would orbit Saturn and make repeated passes through the plumes – like Cassini, but with updated instruments that could even test whether any amino acids found have predominately left or right-handed structures. (Life on Earth predominately creates left-handed forms, and scientists think that life elsewhere will also favor one form over the other instead of a random mixture as would occur from abiotic chemistry.)

    Cassini wasn’t designed to detect life directly, but on a future mission – such as the one proposed – a mass spectrometer would be able to detect carbon isotope ratios unique to living organisms, as well as other potential “biomarkers” of methanogens, including lipids and hydrocarbons.

    Bottom line: Scientists are eager to return to Enceladus to learn more about its intriguing subsurface ocean. The new plan by billionaire Yuri Milner, with NASA’s assistance, may be the best bet to go back and see if anything is swimming in those mysterious alien waters.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.orgin 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. “Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers,” she says.

    • stewarthoughblog 10:52 pm on November 28, 2018 Permalink | Reply

      This substantiates the maxim that intelligence can only be coincidently related to financial possession. Even considering that science can be expected to pursue the investigation of a wide array of physical phenomenon, wasting $billions on speculation of the possibility of life on remote bodies is nonsensical considering that there is virtually a total absence of any evidence of naturalist creation of life on Earth. Projection of any conditions on Enceladus of conditions similar to primordial Earth is pure faith, not based on scientific evidence.

      But, it is true that anyone can spend their money (peaceably) on what they want to


      • richardmitnick 2:08 pm on November 29, 2018 Permalink | Reply

        I totally agree with your assessment of this proposed project. But, of course, it is Milner’s money. The real problem beyond is that we cannot squelch even the wildest quests in hopes for new science. Science never sleeps. The best example of this is that when our Congress in 1993 killed the Superconducting super collider, we left the door wide open for Europe via CERN to build its substitute, the LHC and High Energy Physics simply moved to Europe.


  • richardmitnick 4:05 pm on December 6, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Breakthrough awards announce winners in physics, life sciences and mathematics, , Yuri Milner   

    From SA: “Black-Hole Fireworks Win Big in Multimillion-Dollar Science Prizes” 

    Scientific American

    Scientific American

    December 5, 2016
    Zeeya Merali

    Breakthrough awards announce winners in physics, life sciences and mathematics

    Credit: Kimberly White Getty Images

    Posing problems in science can be just as rewarding as solving them. The discovery of the black-hole firewall paradox — one of the most confounding puzzles to emerge in physics in recent years — has bagged its co-founder a share of one of this year’s US$3-million Breakthrough Prizes, the most lucrative awards in science.

    Joseph Polchinski, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is one of three string theorists to share the fundamental-physics prize — announced along with the life-sciences and mathematics awards on 4 December at a glitzy ceremony at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

    Joseph Polchinski

    Polchinski co-authored an analysis in 2012 that concluded that either black holes are surrounded by a ring of high-energy particles known as a firewall — a possibility that contradicts the general theory of relativity — or physicists’ understanding of quantum theory is wrong. As yet, there is no consensus as to which of these two cornerstones of physics has to give.

    “I made a list of about 11 distinct solutions proposed by some of the biggest names in physics, but none are quite convincing, and none are clearly wrong,” says Polchinski. “I’m completely mystified.”

    Andrew Strominger and Cumrun Vafa, both at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, share the physics prize with Polchinski.

    Andrew Strominger

    Cumrun Vafa

    All three have examined black-hole physics from the perspective of string theory, which posits that at the fundamental level, elementary particles are made up of strings that are anchored to higher-dimensional membranes, or ‘branes’.

    Theories without experiments

    The Breakthrough physics prizes have previously been criticized for honouring string theorists because string theory lies beyond the reach of direct experimental testability. But the prize’s founder, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, argues that this helps to set the prize apart from awards such as the Nobels, which require ideas to be backed up by experiments. “The physics prizes are really recognizing intellectual achievement,” he says. In this case of firewalls, he adds, “this can be in the asking of a question, rather than the finding of an answer”.

    This May, the Breakthrough prizes cemented another distinction from the Nobels by announcing a special collective prize to 1,015 people working on the LIGO project. In February, researchers working at LIGO announced the first detection of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time created when two black holes merge. The Nobel prizes honour at most three people in their science categories.

    The three LIGO project leaders — physicists Ronald Drever and Kip Thorne at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge — will share $1 million; the remaining $2 million will be distributed among the other 1,012 physicists who worked on the project. This continues a trend set last year, when 1,377 neutrino physicists split the mega-prize. “The physics prize selection committee want to send a clear message here that experimental physics is collaborative,” Milner says.

    Ronald Drever

    Kip Thorne

    Rainer Weiss

    LIGO bloc new
    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo Hanford, WA, USA installation
    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo Hanford, WA, USA installation

    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector installation Livingston, LA, USA
    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector installation Livingston, LA, USA

    Gravitational waves. Credit: MPI for Gravitational Physics/W.Benger-Zib
    Gravitational waves. Credit: MPI for Gravitational Physics/W.Benger-Zib

    Cornell SXS, the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project
    Cornell SXS, the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project

    Life-sciences awards

    Harry Noller, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was honoured with a life-sciences prize for his research revealing the centrality of RNA to protein synthesis. Some argue that he missed out on winning the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistrybecause of the award’s limitation to three winners. And this year’s Nobel laureate for physiology or medicine, Yoshinori Ohsumi at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in Japan, also picked up a Breakthrough gong for his work on autophagy, cells’ recycling system.

    The other life-sciences winners were: geneticist Stephen Elledge at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, for elucidating how cells sense and respond to DNA damage; developmental biologist Roeland Nusse at Stanford University in California for pioneering research into the Wnt signalling pathway, which transmits signals from outside to inside cells; and geneticist Huda Zoghbi at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, for discovering the causes of the neurological disordersspinocerebellar ataxia and Rett syndrome.

    The Breakthrough prize in mathematics went to Jean Bourgain at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, for work on the geometry of multidimensional spaces and techniques for solving partial differential equations, with applications to quantum physics, and other research. Bourgain also won the $1-million Shaw Prize in mathematics in 2010.

    The award ceremony, hosted by movie star Morgan Freeman, also honoured six early-career scientists, and the winner of a junior science video-making prize.

    See the full article here .

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    Scientific American, the oldest continuously published magazine in the U.S., has been bringing its readers unique insights about developments in science and technology for more than 160 years.

  • richardmitnick 6:47 am on May 27, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Yuri Milner   

    From AAAS: “Q&A: Web billionaire describes his plan to shoot for the stars” 



    May. 26, 2016
    Zeeya Merali

    Breakthrough Starshot lasers. Breakthrough Starshot will require lasers many times more powerful than any existing today.
    Breakthrough Initiatives

    Last month, Russian internet billionaire Yuri Milner announced plans to send thousands of tiny spacecraft to visit Alpha Centauri, the closest star system at 4.4 light-years from Earth. Dubbed Breakthrough Starshot, the mission aims to take close-up images and collect data from any potentially habitable planets there.

    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker
    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker

    In order to cover the vast distance—41 trillion kilometers—in a reasonable time, the proposed spacecraft will each weigh less than a gram. Once in space, they will unfurl lightweight sails to catch laser beams shot from Earth, accelerating to one-fifth the speed of light under light pressure. Launch could be 30 years off, and the trip to Alpha Centauri would take a further 2 decades.

    Milner, who also supports the multimillion-dollar Breakthrough Prizes and Breakthrough Listen, a search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, has committed $100 million to this venture. But Breakthrough Starshot has polarized opinion: Some are enthused by its ambition, whereas others say it is costly and unnecessary, isn’t feasible, or is downright dangerous. Milner spoke with Science by phone about the challenges facing the project and how he answers his critics. His responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

    Q: How did your interest in space travel and in this mission to Alpha Centauri come about?

    A: I was named Yuri after Yuri Gagarin because I was born the same year the Russian cosmonaut was launched on the first manned space flight. So I’ve carried this message about space travel in my name my whole life!

    Breakthrough Starshot came from a small working group we put together to devise a practical space project to a neighboring star system that could achieve results within the lifetime of a generation. They considered various propulsion mechanisms for interstellar travel—including fusion engines and matter-antimatter propulsion—and concluded that the sail configuration is the most feasible in a reasonable time frame.

    The idea of using spacecraft with solar-powered sails is actually very old, but until recently it was purely theoretical. Over the past 20 years there has been significant progress in microelectronics, nanomaterials, and laser technology that means we can now have a sensible conversation about making a gram-scale starship and accelerating it to 20% of the speed of light.

    Starstruck: Yuri Milner. Breakthrough Initiatives

    Q: You’ve contributed $100 million dollars, but the final project could cost $10 billion. Where will this extra money come from?

    A: We’ve been open from day one that this is not something you can build in a garage and no one person can finance this machine. If this is going to happen, I envisage this as something that will need international collaboration on a financial scale comparable to CERN [the particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland].

    The seed money covers the first 5 to 10 years’ research and development phase, and within that time we should know if the challenges the project faces can be overcome or if they are insurmountable. The second phase will be to build a prototype and I think that can be financed by private investors, too. The final machine will need international backing.

    Q: Might the money be better spent on a new planet-hunting telescope?

    A: We’re actually in negotiations to spend some of the money to increase the capability of some ground-based telescopes to take a direct image of possible planets around Alpha Centauri. That would use existing infrastructure and we hope to announce it soon. This is important because we don’t even know with any degree of certainty if there are potentially habitable planets in the Alpha Centauri system to target with Breakthrough Starshot.

    But there is no substitute for a flyby and taking close-up images. This would be the equivalent of the New Horizons mission to Pluto.

    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    To get an equal quality image with a ground or near-Earth telescope, you would need a telescope on the scale of a few hundred kilometers and that’s not a small endeavor.

    Q: Even if the project’s giant lasers can be built, what about the damage they could potentially cause to the environment or their misuse as a weapon?

    A: Laser technology is following its own Moore’s law trajectory, so in a couple of decades’ time we think laser power will have increased sufficiently and such lasers will not be prohibitively expensive. But from the outset we identified that there must be some form of global consensus on its use. It may be that we have the technological capability but the project stalls because there is no agreement about the governance of such a machine.

    The 4LGSF is part of the Adaptive Optics Facility on Unit Telescope 4 of the VLT.

    Q: Won’t laser beams fired through the atmosphere lose power through dispersion? Wouldn’t a space-based array be better?

    A: That would increase the cost 100 times and push the mission back a few hundred years. So for a space-based system, let’s just stop talking now. It’s not going to happen in our lifetime. A space-based laser also poses more serious policy issues because it could be pointed at Earth and is more difficult to control.

    The power from Earth-based lasers will not be dramatically different. The basic principle would be to utilize the adaptive optics already used by ground-based telescopes to deal with the challenges of the distortion of light passing through the atmosphere.

    Q: Critics have warned that the powerful laser beam could set the tiny craft spinning out of control or destroy the fragile sails. Have you considered such scenarios?

    A: Our experts have been looking into this and now think that a spinning craft may actually be more stable than a nonspinning one. But we don’t know whether the sails will melt when the laser hits them or what the craft will meet in interstellar space. We’ve identified more than 20 technological challenges to the successful completion of this project. More work is needed and that’s what the research phase is for.

    Q: Can you miniaturize the sensors, imaging, and signaling equipment to fit on such a small craft?

    A: We have carried out pretty detailed calculations that show we can shrink down the imaging equipment and sensors, even today. And surprisingly, to send a signal over trillions of miles you only need a small laser on board, powered by a watt-scale battery, and that can be made gram-scale. The sail would then be used as a dish to help transmit the signal, while the laser array on Earth would act as a receiver. So miniaturization of nanocraft is probably the least of the problems—the sails and the lasers are bigger obstacles.

    Q: Are you worried about sustaining a workforce for such a long-term project?

    A: It took two or three hundred years to build some cathedrals, but people did not lose interest. We have proven that we can focus on long term scientific projects, too: 2016 will be remembered as the year we detected gravitational waves but the LIGO experiment took 50 years; CERN is another example of experiments stretching over decades. This is the exciting next stage of space exploration being ignited and the fire will keep burning.

    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector in Livingston, LA, USA
    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector in Livingston, LA, USA

    CERN/LHC Map
    CERN LHC Grand Tunnel
    CERN LHC particles
    LHC at CERN

    Q: You have identified many ways this project might fail. Are you worried that your investment might ultimately go to waste?

    A: Honestly, we are a very lucky generation because we are the first that could pull this off and, if we do, it will be incredible. But if not, we have promised to keep all the results of our research open to the public. One day our civilization will make use of it. It is human nature to explore the world around us and I don’t think that curiosity will ever go away.

    See the full article here .

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of all people.

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