Always have a back up plan. Some people take that axiom to the highest levels develop backup plans for life itself. The Svalbard Seedbank is one such backup plan. Located in an ice cave in Norway it houses hundreds of thousands of seed samples in order to preserve biodiversity that is currently arranged on Earth. Ironically, if the worst models of sea level rise from climate change are realized, the Seedbank itself will be inundated by the sea and its precious cargo lost. So now a team led by a professor at the University of Arizona (UA) have proposed a much more radical idea: have the same sort of Ark, but to it much farther away from any potential catastrophic human failure – on the moon.
The concept of such a “Lunar Ark” was put forward by Dr. Jekan Thanga and his team at UA’s Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering department at a recent IEEE Aerospace Conference meeting. Instead of just holding plant seeds, the Ark would also hold the precursors to higher functioning life, such as eggs and sperm. And all this biodiversity would be placed in one of the most stable locations in the solar system – in lava tubes on the moon.
Scientists discovered a series of approximately 200 lava tubes back in 2013. Measuring approximately 100m in diameter, these lava tubes are largest than most subway tunnels on the Earth today. And importantly, they are extremely stable. Research suggests they have been largely untouched by radiation, meteorite strikes, tectonic movements, earthquakes, or any other disruptive event for the last 3-4 billion years.
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In addition to the passive environmental surrounding, the lava tubes have another benefit: they are extremely cold. Preservation of the mass amount of biological material would benefit immensely from cryogenic temperatures, and the Moon’s underground would already get any sort of Ark at least part of the way there, starting at around -25C. That is still a far cry from the -196C that stems cells (one suggested component of the Ark) must be kept at, but at least it is part of the way there.
Operating a such low temperatures actually presents one of the most difficult challenges the Ark project faces. Machinery would break down at such temperatures as metal could cold weld together, making any storage system inoperable.
However, the UA research team spent a lot of time thinking of the thermal modeling for the project and realized they could take advantage of the cold temperatures in a way that would be infeasible elsewhere. They could use the principle of superconductivity.
Superconductors, at least the most common modern ones, operate at temperatures around the cryogenic point needed to maintain the biologics in the Ark. They also have the neat property of being able to float when subjected to a magnetic field. Using superconductors at a transportation system would eliminate most difficulty in moving around in such cold temperatures.
Transportation mechanics are obviously not the only difficulty facing such a mission. However, one potential difficulty is not as severe as the team first thought. Usually launch costs are the largest cost factor in any ambitious mission. For the Ark effort, that would still be the case, but the total number of launches needed to get a sample of every biologic that would be needed to rebuild the Earth’s entire ecosphere would only be about 250.
That is admittedly still an order of magnitude more than the most ambitious space project to date – the ISS, which took approximately 40 launches to construct. However, with the additional efforts entities like NASA and SpaceX are putting around going to the Moon and Mars, 250 launches does not seem completely cost prohibitive for a project that could potentially safeguard the entire biodiversity of the Earth for billions of years.
Obviously there are many hurdles still to overcome before even taking any suggest Ark project seriously. But part of the point of science is to develop and put forward crazy ideas that could have a real future impact of benefiting (or at least safeguarding) humanity and life more generally. While it would be a long while before any Ark such as the one that Dr. Thanga has put forward it even considered for a mission, ideas like his are what keep the space exploration community so interesting.
UA – Engineers propose solar-powered lunar ark as ‘modern global insurance policy’
UT – Why Lava Tubes Should be Our Top Exploration Priority on Other Worlds
LiveScience – Scientists want to store DNA of 6.7 million species on the moon, just in case
Popular Mechanics – Scientists Are Planning to Build Noah’s Ark on the Moon
Lead Image: Side view of the proposed Ark concept
Credit: Jekan Thanga