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Species or planets could be wiped off the face of the Earth any minute—so we need a “Moon Ark” to safely store frozen eggs, sperm, seeds and other DNA matter from all 6.7 million Earth species.
That’s according to students and staff at the University of Arizona, who at the IEEE Aerospace Conference [aeroconf.org] last weekend divulged details of an ambitious “modern global insurance policy” for our planet.
Their daring plan is to build a complex in the Moon’s lava tubes [forbes.com] staffed by robots and fuelled by solar panels on the lunar surface.
Why do we need such a thing? Volcanoes, earthquakes, civil war, nuclear war, ice ages, rapid climate change and, yes, unpredictable pandemics—that’s our planet. Calamitous events are never far away and a large number of species could be wiped out in a very short time.
Of course, the human race does already has an insurance policy for these kind of events in the shape of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault [croptrust.org], the so-called “doomsday vault” opened in 2008 inside the Arctic Circle in the Svalbard archipelago, Norway.
It holds over a million “back-ups” of duplicate seed samples to protect against any accidental loss of biodiversity.
But it’s not as safe as we need it to be.
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Its “permafrost mountain” home can no longer be relied upon to stay frozen, flooding the entrance in 2017 [theguardian.com]. Svalbard is experiencing rapidly rising temperatures [globalcitizen.org]. It’salso built at only 430 ft./130 meters above sea level.
However, the driving force behind the lunar ark isn’t climate change or sea-level rise per se, but the Toba supervolcanic eruption of 75,000 years ago [wikipedia.org].
The massive eruption, where Lake Toba is now in Sumatra, Indonesia, caused a global volcanic winter lasting up to a decade. “It also caused a 1,000-year cooling period and, according to some, aligns with an estimated drop in human diversity,” said Jekan Thanga, a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering in the UArizona College of Engineering and the SpaceTREx Laboratory, who presented [youtube.com] the paper. “Earth is naturally a volatile environment.”
Happily, we have a Moon just 238,855 miles/384,400 km from Earth where nothing ever happens. It’s empty and it’s cold. It’s the perfect home for a second “ark” to reduce the risk of biodiversity being lost if a catastrophic event were to annihilate certain species on Earth.
The incredible plan to build a lunar base that includes an underground ark goes something like this:
- Ball-like SphereX robots [arizona.edu]—each weighing about 11lbs/5kg and able to fly and hop—to enter, explore and map the Moon’s recently discovered (in 2013) network of underground lava tubes, each about 328ft./100 meters in diameter.
- Design, and then construct, underground ark in the lava tubes, with solar panels on the lunar surface and elevator shafts that access the facility.
- Launch 250 rockets to the Moon, each taking 50 samples from each of 6.7 million species (it took about 40 to build the International Space Station).
- Store the petri dishes of seeds in cryogenic preservation modules inside the lava tubes, which would shield the seeds from solar radiation, meteorites and temperature fluctuations.
- The seeds would be kept at around -292ºF/180ºC, temperatures that would likely cold-weld together metal parts of the base. Cue “floating shelves” made from cryo-cooled superconductor materials that enable quantum levitation above a powerful magnet [youtube.com].
- Staff the facility with robots that navigate through it above magnetic tracks. Robots that can operate under cryo-conditions don’t yet exist—though the proposers admit that new technologies will be needed to make the “Moon Ark” a reality.
“Projects like this make me feel like we are getting closer to becoming a space civilization,” said Álvaro Díaz-Flores Caminero, a UArizona doctoral student leading the thermal analysis for the project. “And to a not-very-distant future where humankind will have bases on the Moon and Mars.”
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.
- Reprints & Permissions [parsintl.com]