Researchers hope that, like Noah’s ark, the vault will keep Earth’s various species safe in the event of a global disaster.
In the Bible, Noah protects animals from a great flood by bringing pairs of various species into his ark. Scientists are now planning to do something similar by sending 6.7 million seeds, sperm, eggs, and DNA samples to a vault on the Moon.
The proposal was presented in 2021 at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Aerospace Conference by a team of scientists from the University of Arizona. It may sound like something out of a science-fiction novel, but it isn’t so far-fetched.
“Earth is a naturally volatile environment,” said Jekan Thanga, a mechanical engineer and study author. A volcano explosion, a nuclear bomb, or an asteroid might all cause an environmental collapse, wiping out the Earth’s vast array of plant and animal life.
A vault on the Moon, on the other hand, could keep a copy of those lifeforms safe.
Thanga and his colleagues described their proposal in a paper titled “Lunar Pits and Lava Tubes for a Modern Ark.” They’d construct the vault beneath the Moon’s surface, where “lunar pits” — ancient lava tunnels between 80 and 100 meters deep — would serve as perfect storage areas.
Thanga stated that the lunar pits would “offer readymade protection from the surface of the Moon.” This is significant since the Moon can undergo “significant temperature changes,” as well as other hazards such as meteorites. The vaults would be accessible through elevator shafts that reached the surface.
Millions of valuable samples would be kept in the vault under extremely cold conditions. Seeds would need to be kept at a temperature of -292°F. At -320°F, stem cells would require much lower temperatures. The vaults would be tended to by robots and powered by solar panels covering 2,055 square feet.
“We can still save them until the tech advances to then reintroduce these species,” Thanga said. “In other words, we’d keep them for another day.”
All of it sounds amazing, but how would you get 6.7 million samples of seeds, sperm, eggs, and DNA to the Moon in the first place?
The scientists are also working on a solution for this. Thanga said that transportation would be “cost-effective” and take roughly 250 rocket launches based on his “back-of-the-envelope” estimates. To put things in context, it took around 40 rocket launches to create the International Space Station.
“It’s not crazy big,” Thanga said. “We were a little bit surprised about that.”
Whether large or small, Thanga believes that establishing a Moon vault like the one he envisions should be a top goal for mankind. “About 75,000 years ago, we had a close call with the Toba supervolcano eruption,” he said. “[It] resulted in a 1,000-year cooling spell, which some believe corresponds to a reduction in human diversity.”
He pointed out that because people have such a significant footprint on the globe, any collapse of civilization could “have a negative cascade effect on the rest of the planet.”
Today, Thanga is worried that mother Earth might be headed to disaster. He sees a worrying parallel with earlier catastrophic occurrences in Earth’s history “due to human activity and other things we don’t completely understand.” Thanga stated that various species had suffered “rapid losses” in the last few decades.
It turns out that there is already a “gene bank” on the planet. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located in the Arctic Circle on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. It has 992,000 distinct samples, each carrying 500 plant seeds on average. However, in the event of a global crisis, this may not be enough.
This is because the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is not resistant to terrestrial threats such as rising sea levels and increasing temperatures. After the permafrost melted in 2017, the vault flooded. Meanwhile, Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s capital, is warming faster than any other city on the planet.
The reasons why Thanga and his team want to build a Moon vault are frightening: societal collapse, environmental devastation, and the possibility of the end of the world as we know it. However, some of his team members see the project as a source of enthusiasm and hope.
“What amazes me about projects like this is that they make me feel like we’re getting closer to becoming a space civilization, and to a not-too-distant future where humankind will have bases on the Moon and Mars,” said lvaro Daz-Flores Caminero, a student leading the thermal analysis for the project.