Mon, 10 Mar 2008 08:21 CET
Plans are being made for the first experiments to pave the way for a "doomsday ark" on the moon.
The ark would contain DNA, embryos and all the essentials of life and civilisation, to be activated should Earth be devastated by a giant asteroid, a climate flip or nuclear holocaust.
The information bank would provide survivors on Earth with a remote-access toolkit to rebuild the human race, said Bernard Foing, the executive director of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG).
A basic version of the ark would contain hard discs holding DNA sequences and instructions for metal smelting and planting crops. It would be buried in a vault just under the lunar surface, where it would be tended by robots.
Transmitters would send the data to heavily protected receivers on Earth in the event of a catastrophe. If no receivers survived, the ark would continue transmitting the information until new ones could be built.
The vault could later be extended to include natural material such as microbes, animal embryos and plant seeds, as well as cultural relics such as surplus museum items.
As a first step to discovering whether living organisms could survive in the vault, European Space Agency (ESA) scientists are hoping to experiment with bacterial ecosystems and plants within the next decade, says Dr Foing, who is also the lead scientist for the ESA's SMART-1 lunar mission.
The first flowers - tulips or arabidopsis, a plant widely used in research - could be grown in 2012 or 2015. Tulips are ideal because they can be frozen, transported long distances and grown with little nourishment. Combined with algae, an enclosed artificial atmosphere and chemically enhanced lunar soil, they could form the basis of an ecosystem.
"Eventually, it will be necessary to have a kind of Noah's ark there, a diversity of species from the biosphere," added Dr Foing.
The scientists envisage placing the first experimental databank on the moon no later than 2020 and it could have a lifespan of 30 years. The full archive would be launched by 2035.
The databank would need to be buried under rock to protect it from the extreme temperatures, radiation and vacuum on the moon. It would be run partly on solar power.
The information would be held in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish and would be linked by transmitter to 4,000 "Earth repositories" that would provide shelter, food and water for survivors.
Dr Foing says that although there is no evidence that an asteroid is currently on a collision course with Earth, craters on Earth and the moon "indicate that asteroid strikes have occurred often" over the lifetime of the solar system.
"The damage to the Earth's environment from a large impact can be catastrophic, with fatal consequences for life. It is widely believed that the dinosaurs went extinct because of such an impact event 65 million years ago. "
"But to develop a true Noah's Ark, we eventually would need to bring people to the moon. Only humans could do all the things necessary to successfully operate a genetic laboratory.
"On Earth we are already investigating several activities such as genetic sequencing, cloning, and stem cell research. Our lunar scientists could adapt that technology - cultivating cells, storing them, and doing experiments to ensure that embryology works on the moon."
Construction of the ark was discussed last month by William Burrough and Jim Burke at a symposium on "Space Solutions to Earth's Global Challenges" at the International Space University (ISU) in Strasbourg, France.
A dose of hubris and lack of reasoning produces such ideas unfortunately. Instead the money and energy could be used to fund research into NEOs and the collection of historical data on cometary/asteroid impacts on earth, in order to inform the public and prepare them accordingly. This project is a distraction from the real issues