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Scientists Want a Solar-Powered Ark on the Moon

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

Kate Byng-Hall reports as scientists from Arizona propose a lunar ark to protect the Earth’s biodiversity in case of emergency.

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A group of scientists from the University of Arizona have proposed the construction of a solar-powered facility on the moon to store seed, spore, sperm and egg samples from 6.7 million different species in case of disaster on Earth.

Jekan Thanga, an aerospace and mechanical engineering professor from the University of Arizona, has called the plan a “modern global insurance policy” to protect our species against threats to the planet, many of which are caused by human activity.



An Out-of-this-World Plan

The scientists’ proposed ark, which drew inspiration from the Biblical narrative of Noah’s Ark, would be contained within a network of 200 empty lava tunnels on the moon. These tunnels have been undisturbed for three to four billion years, meaning they are practically impenetrable except from a direct nuclear missile strike or a large meteor, making them a lot more secure than any location on the Earth. As Thanga explains:

“Earth is naturally a volatile environment. As humans, we had a close call about 75,000 years ago with the Toba super-volcanic 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.”

In addition to the unpredictability of the Earth’s climate, we are subject to threats from potential nuclear wars, asteroid strikes, pandemics, solar storms and global droughts, none of which are outside the realms of possibility. The scientists behind the project argue that “humanity has a fundamental responsibility to protect the diversity of life on Earth”, and that preserving a collection representing the planet’s biodiversity separate from our influence is the best way to ensure this.



Is it Feasible?

The idea of a ‘doomsday’ store isn’t a new one, and it doesn’t just mean nuclear bunkers for the uber-rich. There is already the Global Seed Vault on Spitsbergen, part of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago right next to the North Pole, which holds seeds for 930,000 varieties of food crops in case of emergency. However, some scientists have already expressed concern that the seed bank is vulnerable to rising sea levels attributed to climate change.

A lunar ark seems to be a sound logical jump to avoid the Earth’s issues, but will come at a cost. The technology required to complete it doesn’t exist yet, as a method called quantum levitation would need to be confirmed and put into practice in order to fix the stored objects in a magnetic field rather than securing them with gravity. This is required as the stored objects would need to be kept extremely cold – between minus 292 and minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit – at which temperature they would fuse to the ground, as would the robots facilitating their storage.

This all sounds very theoretical and complicated, but some believe that it could be accomplished within thirty years, or even fewer if the situation becomes desperate. However, this would only be feasible if the plan secured hundreds of billions of dollars-worth of investment: as Thanga explains, “this is a project that would require real urgency to have a lot of people energized enough to go after it”.

Thanga argues that “we need a modern ark that is safe and away from all the possible cataclysms”, but this concept of ‘need’ is a controversial one. Do we as humans – only one of millions of species on the Earth and potentially trillions in the whole universe – have the right to stray across the milky way and spread our seed, as it were, beyond our atmosphere when the destruction of our planet is largely our fault? This is an ethical question we must ask continue to ask ourselves over the approaching decades, and one which will require significant soul-searching as well as just a selfish will to survive.


 

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