Experts weigh hunt for unearthly life in solar system

Carolyn Porco and Enceladus
Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco shows a graphic that compares the size of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, with the British Isles. (Breakthrough Initiatives Photo)

STANFORD, Calif. — Are there microbes falling in the snows of Enceladus? Could a drone fly to biological hot spots on Titan? Is life floating in the sulfurous clouds of Venus?

All those extraterrestrial locales — plus Mars and Europa — had their turn in the spotlight on Thursday at the third annual Breakthrough Discuss conference on Stanford University’s campus. The gathering was organized by the Breakthrough Initiatives, a program created by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and his wife Julia to spotlight future frontiers in the search for life beyond Earth.

The program is supporting the radio-based search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, through Breakthrough Listen. It’s also backing Breakthrough Starshot, a decades-long campaign aimed at sending blizzards of beam-powered nanoprobes to the Alpha Centauri star system.

This week’s proceedings signal that Breakthrough’s quest will focus broadly on our own solar system as well.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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