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"Lunar Ark" - a project to create a gene storage on the Moon
"Lunar Ark" - a project to create a gene storage on the Moon
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A group of scientists have hypothesized the concept of a "lunar ark" hidden inside the moon's ancient lava channels. This colossal repository can store the sperm, eggs and seeds of millions of species on Earth, thus creating a unique reserve for the rainy day.

To "restart" the Earth's biodiversity in the event of a sudden global catastrophe, scientists propose to build a real "ark" in the lava channels of the Moon - a repository of genes for all living species

The Ark (in other words, a gene bank) will be reliably hidden in tunnels and caves laid by lava flows over 3 billion years ago, and will be powered by solar panels located on the surface of the Earth's satellite. According to the researchers, the cryogenic storage will contain the genetic material of all 6.7 million known species of plants, animals and fungi on Earth, which will require at least 250 rocket launches to deliver them to the Moon.

Scientists believe that such measures will help protect the wildlife of our planet from natural and man-made apocalyptic scenarios, such as the eruption of a supervolcano or nuclear war, and ensure the survival of the genes of all terrestrial species. Researchers presented a project of the future ark at the IEEE aerospace conference.

“There is a strong relationship between us and nature,” lead author Jackan Thanga, head of the Space and Terrestrial Robotic Research Laboratory (SpaceTREx) at the University of Arizona, told Live Science. “We have a responsibility to conserve biodiversity and provide the means to conserve it.”

According to Thangi, to date, not all the technologies required for this ambitious project have been put on the industrial stream - some even exist only on paper. However, researchers believe that the storage ark could be built within the next 30 years.

Existential and real threats: the future of our planet

The main purpose of the lunar ark is to create a secure external storage of biodiversity. “I like to use a data analogy,” Thanga explained. "It's like copying photos and documents from your computer to a separate hard drive, so you have a backup of your most important information as a last resort."

Hypothetically, if some apocalyptic event destroys the natural world or destroys most of humanity, people will have a chance to "press the reset button."

In their presentation, the researchers listed the following potential threats to the existence of biodiversity on Earth: supervolcano eruption, global nuclear war, asteroid impact, pandemic, accelerating climate change, global solar storm and global drought. Of course, the probability of these events is far from 100%, but each voiced threat is a sad reality that we can face at any moment in history.

Making genetic backups to conserve biodiversity is far from a new concept. Svalbard's Seed Vault, located above the Arctic Circle in Norway, already includes genetic samples from a wide variety of plant species from around the world and has already been used to bring some plants back into the wild.

However, this storage may suffer due to rising sea levels or an asteroid impact - in this case, even remoteness from civilization will not save.According to the researchers, only by storing genetic information somewhere outside can we guarantee that it will withstand any threats to the existence of life on Earth.

Lava canals: what is in the bowels of the moon

Lunar Ark Diagram

The moon was the obvious choice for an extraterrestrial ark for one main reason: it is only 4 days' journey from Earth to it, and therefore it is much easier to transport building materials and samples to it than, for example, to Mars. According to Thangi, building an ark in orbit around the Earth is not a safe option due to orbital instability.

However, another advantage of building an ark on the moon is that it can be safely hidden in lava tubes. These caves and tunnels below the surface were formed when tectonic activity still existed on the satellite and have remained intact since then. The lava tubes will protect the ark from meteor impacts and DNA damaging radiation. Previously, lava tubes have already been called the most successful place for the construction of the first lunar colonial cities, so this choice seems completely logical.

“If there is no direct hit from a meteorite or a nuclear strike, everything will be fine with the ark,” says Thanga. "In addition, the moon could have up to 200 lava tubes suitable for building an ark."

The researchers propose to first map these pipes using specially designed robots capable of autonomously exploring caves and tunnels. According to Thangi, these hypothetical SphereX robots will resemble large Pokeballs with dark gray metal upper and bronze lower halves. They will be able to hop on the lunar surface in low-gravity conditions and map cavities inside the satellite using cameras and LIDAR, a remote sensing technique that uses a pulsed laser to navigate. Once the robots have found a suitable lava tube, construction can begin.

Base creation

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Building an ark may seem like a huge logistical challenge at first glance, but Thanga is confident that the upcoming missions of NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to the moon will set the stage for such construction projects. Thanga predicts that transporting samples to the moon will be the most difficult and costly aspect of making an ark.

Scientists' calculations suggest that for the successful return of a species to Earth, it will take up to 500 samples - after all, animals and plants need to interbreed with each other, producing offspring. In addition, for a start, equipment and building materials will have to be delivered to the moon, and this is additional time and colossal costs. “It will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to build the ark and transport the samples, so this project will likely have to be deployed internationally,” says Thanga.

Robots work in: the everyday life of a cryogenic storage

Note that one vital aspect of the lunar ark is completely inaccessible at this time.

Cryogenic preservation of samples requires an environment with extremely low temperatures, from - 180 to - 196 degrees Celsius. This means that using humans to sort and retrieve samples from cryostorage modules is impractical and even dangerous. Instead, the hard and delicate work will fall on the shoulders of the robots.

But at such low temperatures, modern robots simply freeze to the floor as a result of a passive cold welding process, when metals are fused together at freezing temperatures.The solution, according to the researchers, is quantum levitation. This theoretical solution is a "supercharged" version of magnetism that uses superconducting materials to hold objects in a magnetic field.

Quantum levitation is not yet possible and represents only a beautiful theory, but in the future, such a solution will be in great demand for other cryogenic projects, such as long-distance space travel. Therefore, scientists believe that one or another solution to the problem will be found in the very near future, otherwise they will simply have to forget about space exploration.

The researchers say a 30-year period is the most realistic time frame. However, if humanity is faced with an inevitable existential crisis, then the work can be accelerated at times. If we find ourselves on the verge of catastrophe, then by joint efforts a storage facility on the Moon can be built in 10 years, but this will require an unprecedented level of cooperation - we will have to forget about the economic and political differences of the leading world powers.