Presented as a type of "global insurance policy" to preserve Earth's precious flora and fauna in a high-tech repository on the Moon, University of Arizona assistant professor Jekan Thanga is proposing a momentous project to preserve all of Earth's species in case of some sort of global catastrophe.
This ambitious idea to turn our lone satellite into a lunar Noah's Ark was delivered by Thanga and his University students last weekend during the ongoing virtual IEEE Aerospace Conference, where the group offered their biblical plan to safeguard not only humankind, but also animals, plants, and fungi for posterity.
The solar-powered lunar ark would theoretically store cryogenically frozen seed, spore, sperm, egg samples, and DNA matter from 6.7 million Earth species in a network of underground lava tubes recently discovered on the Moon.
"Earth is naturally a volatile environment," explained Thanga, a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering in the UArizona College of Engineering. "As humans, we had a close call about 75,000 years ago with the Toba supervolcanic eruption, which caused a 1,000-year cooling period and, according to some, aligns with an estimated drop in human diversity. Because human civilization has such a large footprint, if it were to collapse, that could have a negative cascading effect on the rest of the planet."
He warns that severe climate change that might cause rising sea levels would find dry land suddenly underwater, most importantly at the Svalbard Seedbank, a Norwegian facility that contains hundreds of thousands of seed samples to protect against some unexpected cosmic event.
Thanga's crew insists that storing samples away from our planet reduces the chance of biodiversity loss if a devastating calamity caused Earth to cease its life-hosting capacities.
"One piece of inspiration for the “Lunar Ark” came from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called "The Inner Light,” from Season 5," Thanga tells SYFY WIRE. “In other words we don’t want our human civilization to be trapped in a death spiral where we can afford to only send a few memorial artifacts so that ‘somebody’ remembers our existence.”
Nearly 200 lunar lava tubes were found on the Moon in 2013 and they've remained untainted for 3-4 billion years. These natural tunnels would be an ideal shelter against radical surface temperature variation, cosmic radiation and micro-meteorites. Thanga's ambitious underground ark would inter these endangered species in cryo-conditions of -180 C and colder, which will require new advancements in cryogenics and robotics to take the endeavor to the next level. Oh yeah, and a lot of cash!
According to Thanga's calculations, shuttling approximately 50 samples from each of Earth's 6.7 million species would necessitate 250 rocket launches. By comparison, NASA required 40 different rocket launches to construct the International Space Station.
"It's not crazy big," Thanga said. "We were a little bit surprised about that."
Blueprints for the underground ark include an array of solar panels on the moon's surface to deliver electricity. Multiple elevator shafts would connect down into the main facility, where petri dishes would be kept in cryogenic preservation modules. A larger elevator shaft could be assigned to transport construction materials to provide an easier way to expand the facility from within the lava tubes.
Quantum levitation could also be employed to aid in the cavern repository, whereby a cryo-cooled superconductor material floats above a powerful magnet, with both elements locked at a fixed distance. This phenomenon could allow the team's ark design to conjure up shelves of floating samples that miniature robots would monitor while navigating along magnetic tracks.
"What amazes me about projects like this is that they make me feel like we are getting closer to becoming a space civilization, and to a not-very-distant future where humankind will have bases on the moon and Mars," said Álvaro Díaz-Flores Caminero, a UArizona doctoral student aboard the project. "Multidisciplinary projects are hard due to their complexity, but I think the same complexity is what makes them beautiful."