University of Arizona researcher Jekan Thanga recently proposed the idea of creating a moon vault filled with the genetic material of 6.7 millions species from Earth. Such a task would safeguard life from extinction and potentially allow humanity to continue in the event of a global mass extinction. Similarities can be seen with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, currently operational in the remote arctic north. It stores over a million samples of plant matter and provides “backup copies” in the case of an extinction.
Under the current proposal, the facility itself would be built into the surface of the moon, occupying a lava tube with only the airlock, an antenna and a large array of solar panels on the outside. These panels serve a critical purpose in the vault, as they provide the energy required to cryogenically freeze its contents. The preservation modules are located beneath the soil, along with analysis laboratories where scientists are able to periodically ensure there are no faults in the samples. The lunar soil would help protect the samples from radiation, as well as small meteorites. A series of elevators would connect the airlock on the surface with the main complex below.
Thanga claimed that there are certain events humanity would not be able to endure, citing examples of supervolcanoes and asteroids. Humans have come close to extinction before, one example being the Toba eruption, in which the global population was reduced to a mere 10,000-30,000. Should the Earth be completely annihilated or rendered uninhabitable, a backup sanctuary on the moon may prove to be invaluable in a worst-case scenario.
Of the 6.7 million samples, the vast majority would be fungi due to the kingdom’s immense diversity as well as 300,000 different plants. Unlike the Svalbard Seed Vault, the lunar ark would also preserve the sperm and egg cells of around 1.3 million species of animal.
The samples would have to be stored at freezing temperatures of -196 degrees celsius in order to be properly cryogenically preserved. In such cold, there is a risk of the metallic parts of the apparatus freezing or even cold-welding together. Thankfully quantum levitation may be used to prevent this from happening. This phenomenon utilises magnets and the freezing climate to levitate the shelves above metal surfaces. They would be locked in place, the magnet and superconductor would move together.
Naturally the question of cost has been raised, and it would be a substantial amount. With current technology it costs around £1,971 to send a single kilogram into orbit, even more so to send it to the moon. Thanga estimates that 250 trips would be required using the SpaceX falcon heavy or NASA SLS launchers. By my own estimates the price of transport alone may be around 400 billion dollars.
Naturally questions have been raised as to whether such a high price is worth paying given that the full potential of the ark may never be used, and that funding should be allocated to other projects, but Thanga’s team is confident that the insurance provided would outway the cost.