A team of engineers led by University of Arizona researcher Jekan Thanga has proposed a solar-powered lunar ark to act as a modern global insurance policy for humanity. The concept would store cryogenically frozen seed, spore, sperm, and egg samples from 6.7 million Earth species. Thanga and his team unveiled their lunar ark concept in a paper presented over the weekend during the IEEE Aerospace Conference. The group proposed that the ark could be placed inside any of 200 lava tubes just beneath the moon's surface first discovered by the scientific community in 2013.
Formed billions of years ago and untouched for an estimated 3 to 4 billion years, these caverns would provide shelter from solar radiation, micrometeorites, and surface temperature changes. As the Moon's lava tubes measure approximately 100 meters in diameter, they also offer ample space for the proposed project's millions of samples. At temperatures of -25° Celsius (-15° F), the team explained that the Moon provides ideal conditions for storing samples that need to stay very cold for long periods of time.
Of course, such a project would incur the immense costs inherent to space travel and would likely not be possible until NASA establishes its proposed lunar station years from now. However, the researchers say such an insurance policy is nevertheless an important goal to strive towards.
Thanga, professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering in the Arizona College of Engineering, explained in a press release, Earth is naturally a volatile environment. 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.
Thanga also commented that the climate crisis has the capacity to raise sea levels enough that they would submerge the Svalbard Seedbank, a structure in Norway that holds hundreds of thousands of seed samples to protect against the accidental loss of biodiversity. Essentially, Thanga and his team believe that storing samples on the Moon, or any other celestial body, insures against the possibility of a civilization-ending event on Earth.
Thanga and his team's proposal is much more ambitious in scope. Based on quick calculations, they say it would take about 250 rocket launches to transport about 50 samples from each of 6.7 million species. As a reference, the International Space Station took 40 launches to build.
Thanga doesn't seem to see the scale of the project as too big a hurdle, he said, it's not crazy big. We were a little bit surprised about that.
As for the design of the lunar ark, the team's early concept includes a set of solar panels on the moon's surface to provide electricity. Two or more elevator shafts would lead into the main facility. There, petri dishes would be housed in a series of cryogenic preservation modules. A separate goods elevator would also enable the base's expansion.
The team says there is still a lot of work to be done determining how exactly the samples would be stored to protect them in harsh space conditions, they have considered locking the seeds in place using quantum levitation and having maintenance robots roam the facility on magnetic tracks. Then again, they have plenty of time before any such project has the capacity to reach the Moon's surface.