On the remote arctic archipelago Svalbard lies a vault containing nearly one million seeds that can be used to repopulate threatened plant species and ensure biodiversity in the face of a potential global crisis.
But this seed bank has a potential major weakness: It is on the planet Earth.
On Saturday, March 6, University of Arizona assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering Jekan Thanga proposed a “lunar ark” at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Aerospace Conference. In his presentation, Thanga described the need for a “global insurance policy,” and how life on Earth can survive potential catastrophes by storing seeds, spores and more—including human genetic material such as sperm and eggs—on the moon.
“Life on Earth is not always necessarily merry,” Thanga said. “There are many cataclysms in our history. There’s quite a number of us, myself included, tracking critical events in Earth’s history, such as asteroid impacts… And this touches on several timely topics. One of the big draws is the fallibility of human civilization and ecosystems. It’s more upfront now for many of us witnessing current events. There’s a sense of fragility seeing the dramatic impact of COVID. That strikes a chord with getting people’s attention.”
Similar to the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, Thanga’s modern day ark would hold reproductive samples from more than 6 million Earth species. But instead of floating on a flooded Earth, this ark would be housed inside recently discovered lava tubes under the moon’s surface, many of which have remained undisturbed for billions of years.
Of course, this is only a proposal, and creating such an ark would require technology not yet developed. Transporting those millions of seed and DNA samples to the moon is estimated to require roughly 250 rocket launches. By comparison, it only took 40 launches to build the International Space Station.
Thanga says the proposal serves both as a legitimate scientific concept, but also it furthers the theoretical conversation about the need for a global insurance policy. Though COVID is the latest disaster to spur discussions about global survival, Thanga says climate change is another potential cataclysm, and one that can threaten the aforementioned Svalbard vault.
“We’ve proposed a solution that has been refined and is making use of a multitude of advancements that are fitting for our time,” Thanga said. “On the other hand, it’s making stronger the question that if there is mass cataclysm, what is our answer? Are we at the point where we can manage and prepare for it? In other words, can we survive these situations?”
Thanga outlined the lunar ark concept with a group of his undergraduate and graduate students. The team’s model involves an underground base that would hold cryogenically preserved samples and is powered by solar panels. According to UA, to be “cryopreserved,” the seeds must be cooled to negative 292 degrees fahrenheit and stem cells kept at negative 320 degrees fahrenheit. As a reference for just how cold this is, the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine must be stored at negative 94 degrees fahrenheit.
“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 UA 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.”
Though it is highly conceptual, Thanga has a history of working with technologically advanced projects. These include projects supported by NASA and the U.S. Air Force, such as his work with “CubeSats,” miniature satellites that are currently being used to simulate the surface environments of asteroids.
Thanga and his team even considered those satellites as potential homes for the ark, but decided the project would be simpler—if such a project can be considered simple—on a solid body.
“We don’t have resources floating in space, so we’d have to mine them from an asteroid or from the moon, as opposed to utilizing the moon’s resources that are already there,” Thanga said. “The lava tube is a natural structure that we could utilize. By our current estimates they are untouched for three billion years, and for that reason very stable. They also do not receive cosmic or solar radiation, or micrometeorite impact.”
Scientists discovered the lunar lava tubes beneath the moon’s surface early last decade. Similarly structured to Earth’s, these lava tubes form from lava flowing through the ground, gradually emptying out and leaving a cavernous channel behind. However, these lunar tubes are far larger than the lava tubes in places like Hawaii, and can stretch to more than 300 feet in diameter.
“We are looking at how to use small satellites or small spacecraft to go out and explore these extreme environments, and in this paradigm of exploration, it’s a very high risk. So it makes a lot more sense to send robots first to really get a feel for what these tubes are,” Thanga said.
Thanga is hesitant to give specific dates for a prediction as to when this ark could happen, but can list some scientific advancements required to make the project feasible. First, he says scientists would need to develop complex robotics that can operate under the extreme cold present within the moon’s lava tubes.
In addition, they’d also need to overcome a phenomenon called “cold welding,” where similar metals in a vacuum (such as in space) can fuse together simply by touching because there is literally nothing between them, such as air, as there normally is on Earth.
Because of rapidly diversifying space industries, Thanga says there are multiple potential groups who may fund the project. These can range from government agencies to independent companies like SpaceX, to multinational organizations like the United Nations. Again looking at the Svalbard vault as an analog, that project is managed by multiple groups, including the Norwegian government and the nonprofit Crop Trust, and funded by various governments and charitable organizations working toward a common goal.
“I would see the trigger as an imminent threat, several notches worse than COVID, and we slip by it,” Thanga said. “That might alert people to the fact that we need this idea of a backup or a way to limit the shock of one of these possible cataclysms.”