The lunar ark will save us. The ambitious project, aimed at preserving humanity as well as animal, plant and fungi varieties, was presented at the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Aerospace Conference, the largest international engineering society. Jekan Thanga, director of the Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration lab at the University of Arizona, called it a “modern global insurance policy” inspired by the biblical tale of Noah’s Ark. This time, however, it’ll be a vault where cryogenically frozen seeds, spores, sperm and eggs will be stored, for a total of 6.7 million of different terrestrial species. “There’s this strong interconnection between us and nature,” explained Thanga, “we have a responsibility to be guardians of biodiversity and the means to preserve it. Not all of the technology needed for this ambitious project exists yet, but it could realistically be built within the next 30 years.”
A peculiar bank
Why do we need a biodiversity gene bank? Life on Earth is based on sharing: each being depends on another. The term biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth, at all levels –from genes to ecosystems– and can encompass evolutionary, ecological and cultural processes. The notion of a lunar ark was born from the premise that it could be more advantageous, in terms of costs and benefits, than other notions such as the protection of all endangered species or the creation of an artificial ecosystem to keep them alive. In essence, the goal is to keep these samples safe while technology evolves to enable us to build a reliable biodiversity backup on our planet, too.
As a matter of fact, something similar already exists in Norway: since 2008, more than a million seeds from different varieties, out of a total of about 2.4 million worldwide, have been stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This structure, however, is not impervious to potential cataclysmic events, and this is why scientists at the University of Arizona have tried to go further, figuratively projecting themselves on the Moon.
The area where the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located
The unknowns of the project
In 2013, the existence of a network of about 200 underground tunnels, created by lava flows when the Moon was geologically active, was discovered. These tunnels, whose diameter reaches about 100 metres, have remained unchanged for 3 to 4 billion years and could prove to be the ideal safe for the preservation of terrestrial species, sheltering them from solar radiation, micrometeorites and abrupt changes in temperature. The American scientists have estimated that about 250 rocket launches would be enough to ship around 50 samples of the 6.7 million selected species. The tunnels would be mapped in advance with cameras installed on spherical remote control robots, while, once built, the vault could be powered by solar panels placed on the surface. Inside the tunnels it’d be almost 200 degrees below zero, and this cryogenic temperature would ensure the preservation of the biological material.
There remain, however, a lot of unknowns: many aspects still need to be explored, starting from an assessment on how to build such an ark and make it operational. We need to understand how the absence of gravity might affect stored seeds, and a plan for communication with Earth has to be developed. “Projects like this make me feel like we are getting closer to becoming a space civilization,” commented Álvaro Díaz-Flores Caminero, one of the aerospace engineers on the project, “and to a not-very-distant future where humankind will have bases on the Moon and Mars. Multidisciplinary projects are hard due to their complexity, but I think the same complexity is what makes them beautiful.”
The author: Maria Pia Rossignaud
Journalist and expert on digital media writing, she is one of the twenty-five digital experts of the European Commission Representation in Italy, director of the first Italian digital culture magazine "Media Duemila" and Vice President of the TuttiMedia Observatory.
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