Space

Lunar "Noah's Ark" concept saves backup of millions of plants and animals

Lunar "Noah's Ark" concept sav...
The Moon as seen by the Galileo deep-space probe in 1992
The Moon as seen by the Galileo deep-space probe in 1992
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A diagram demonstrating the layout of the proposed lunar ark
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A diagram demonstrating the layout of the proposed lunar ark
The Moon as seen by the Galileo deep-space probe in 1992
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The Moon as seen by the Galileo deep-space probe in 1992

In the event of a global catastrophe – which, let’s be honest, is seeming more and more likely nowadays – how would we protect the wide variety of plants and animals on Earth? A team of researchers has proposed a rather dramatic solution: a “Noah’s Ark” on the Moon that stores millions of samples of seeds, spores, sperm and eggs.

Extinctions are happening at such an alarming rate that some scientists suggest we’re heading into the sixth mass extinction event to occur on Earth. Since human activity is the leading cause of those deaths, it’s our responsibility to try to do something to help.

One way we can do that is to collect and store samples of species in “doomsday-proof” vaults, like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Located in the Arctic, this seed bank is home to almost a million samples of important food crops from around the world, preserving them in case of disaster. So-called “frozen zoos” perform a similar function for animals, preserving sperm, eggs, embryos, DNA or tissue samples.

The problem with these vaults is that they might not be as doomsday-proof as we’d like. In 2016 water from melting permafrost seeped into the Svalbard Seed Vault, demonstrating its vulnerability to the consequences of climate change. Sadly, few if any places on Earth will be completely safe.

By that logic, the safest place to put them would be not on Earth, right? That’s the thinking behind the new lunar ark concept put forward by researchers at the University of Arizona, which would establish a “global insurance policy” for plants, animals and fungi on the Moon.

In many ways, the Moon is a perfect location for this kind of facility. It’s freezing cold. It’s tectonically stable. There’s no weather or water to contend with. And there are no animals and very few humans to get in the way.

The team proposes that the lunar ark could be built inside lava tubes that were recently discovered just below the Moon’s surface. Elevator shafts would extend down into the facility, where samples can be stored in cryogenic preservation modules, chilling seeds to around -180 °C (-292 °F) and animal cells to -196 °C (-321 °F). The whole thing would be powered by solar panels up on the surface.

A diagram demonstrating the layout of the proposed lunar ark
A diagram demonstrating the layout of the proposed lunar ark

There’s an added bonus to keeping the modules this cold. At cryogenic temperatures a phenomenon called quantum levitation can emerge, where a superconductor material will float above a powerful magnet. The two are inextricably linked at a fixed distance, which could be useful for suspending shelves of samples in midair, or having robots zip around the place on magnetic tracks.

"It's like they're locked in place by strings, but invisible strings," says Jekan Thanga, an author of the paper. "When you get to cryogenic temperatures, strange things happen. Some of it just looks like magic but is based on tried and laboratory-tested physics principles at the edge of our understanding.”

One of the biggest hurdles to doing anything on the Moon is getting the materials there – weight is at a premium on rocket launches, and a project on this scale is quite weighty. But, the team says, it’s not insurmountable. The researchers estimate that it would take about 250 launches to transport 50 samples from each of the 6.7 million or so species on Earth.

"It's not crazy big," says Thanga. "We were a little bit surprised about that."

The lunar ark is a fascinating concept, but of course at this stage it remains just that. The scientists say they plan to investigate further into just how the ark could be built and operated, including how the samples might be affected by factors like reduced gravity.

A paper describing the lunar ark concept was presented last weekend at the IEEE Aerospace Conference. The video presentation can be seen below.

Lunar Pits and Lava Tubes for a Modern Ark

Source: University of Arizona

9 comments
Juanjo
Suppose we get the new ark on the Moon and filled with all the samples. Then the doomsday arrives. How may we return to the Moon to recover everything? 250 launches, remember. A lot of technology should be preserved on Earth to return to the Moon.

It should be cheaper to put several Svalbard type vaults in the most tectonic stable places on Earth and powered by deep geothermal power supplies.
Lloyd Slusher
If humans can't get to the moon, these are useless. Rather a capsule with a decaying orbit of 1000 years and a capsule which would survive landing on land. This could be done again and again every 500 years so there is always a capsule in orbit.
buzzclick
For a mere fraction of the cost of this concept, the Svalbard installation can be refurbished to be impervious to any detrimental climate and tectonic effects. The installation on the moon is only practical if we were to need the vault to seed future Mars colonies and the like.
bwana4swahili
Doubt this will be of much use to us BUT it might prove interesting to any alien civilization passing by long after we're gone (and can't get to the Moon to retrieve our heritage).
Nobody
No concerns about radiation, meteor strikes or how the heck we will ever get back to the moon if earth's environment collapses? If we can't survive here, then we won't survive anywhere else. While everyone worries about climate change, pollution is poisoning us to death. WE have to live through today to even reach tomorrow. A poisoned earth won't be very fertile even if we do have spare seeds. Mars is not an option since it has already been Terra formed just as it is.
Nelson Hyde Chick
This is possibly the stupidest idea ever! Earth goes to shit and needs to have life renewed how are our descendants supposed to retrieve what has been stored on the moon? Is this for aliens to introduce to Earth after humanity is gone?
toni24
Great idea, but how does the creators of this idea think that the "Noah's Ark" on the moon would be accessible following a Disaster that would wipe out all the species on Earth. If that happens, then where will humans come from? If we lose our species, we probably will be gone too.
SibylTheHeretic
Another valid reason to have people on the moon. I like the design except for the solar. Install kilopower and put the generators in the lava tube for easy access and protection from micro meteorites.
Ralf Biernacki
Powered by solar arrays? Srsly? Solar arrays are fragile, and deteriorate fast, especially in a location like that where there is no atmosphere to absorb the constant radiation bombardment. Ten years' life expectancy---maybe as much as fifty, wow. That's a real reliable way to maintain a seed vault. Not. Not to even mention the electrostatic lunar dust that gets everywhere. Remember the Mars rover that got killed by dust covering its solar arrays. But there is a better way than silly solar arrays, and more long-lasting even than nuclear. The surface of the Moon gets radiatively heated by the sun, and then cooled by reradiating heat out into space, on a four-week cycle that has been going on forever. The interior, at some depth, has constant temperature. Set up a system that gets power from shuttling heat between the surface and the interior, and back again, and you will never run out of power. The efficiency is not great, but the power source is inexhaustible, and you can run a sealed solid-state power system on thermal junctions, with no moving parts to wear out. With the whole powerplant buried deep for shielding from radiation, dust, and even modest meteor strikes.