A team of researchers from the University of Arizona has made a bold proposal for preserving life on Earth in the event of a global crisis. They outline what it would take to create a repository of life — not just humankind but animal and plant life — far away from the risks that our planet faces, whether natural or due to human activity. The proposal may sound like something out of a science fiction story but it is surprisingly realistic.
Presenting their idea at the IEEE Aerospace Conference held over the weekend, the team sees it as a "modern global insurance policy" against disasters that may befall Earthly civilization. Hence, the "Lunar Ark" where cryogenically frozen samples of sperm, eggs, spores, and seeds of 6.7 million species can be protected in safety on the Moon.
The Moon might not be an ideal location for ease of access but it has advantages beyond being removed from the "doomsday" scenario that may have befallen our planet. In particular, the Moon's lava tubes and lunar pits could be ideal places to construct a modern-day Noah’s Ark, similar in concept to Svalbard's famous "Doomsday" Seed Vault, but in a place where the climate crisis can't reach the specimens.
There are hundreds of lava tubes beneath the surface of the Moon. Thanks to the rock above, they are shielded from radiation and micrometeorites, and the extremely low temperature underground would be an asset for storing the samples, just like Arctic Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, is for the seed vault and the Arctic World Archive.
Powering such a facility is also within current capabilities. Assuming a 30 percent efficiency, 191 square meters (2,055 square feet) of solar panels, would be enough to power the Lunar Ark. Construction and delivery would be a hurdle but nothing beyond the realm of possibilities.
Professor Jaken Thanga, who presented the concept, explained that they estimated the facilities to be filled with samples in about 250 trips. For comparison, the construction of the International Space Station (which is of course a lot closer) took 40 flights.
"It's not crazy big," Thanga said in a statement accompanying the talk. "We were a little bit surprised about that."
There are other hurdles to overcome, some of which have potentially fantastic solutions. The cold and near-vacuum conditions of the Moon’s lava tubes could affect metals employed in this facility in a number of ways. They can freeze, jam, and even cold-weld together. But the team has a creative solution: employing superconductors.
Superconductors exhibit incredible properties, such as allowing the flow of electricity with no resistance. They can also trap things in place thanks to a phenomenon known as quantum levitation. The samples from Earth could be made to levitate in place over superconducting tracks with robots allowed to move about on other tracks to check them.
While this ambitious project may not be ready to be deployed just yet, the team has also proposed ways to study the Moon's lava tubes in preparation thanks to hopping and flying robots called SphereX. These lava tubes might not only house specimens of Earthly species but they could also be ideal for a permanent presence of humans on the Moon.
"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 University of Arizona doctoral student leading the thermal analysis for the project. "Multidisciplinary projects are hard due to their complexity, but I think the same complexity is what makes them beautiful."