Prepping for the end of the world, under the surface of the moon

A “doomsday vault” of cryogenic materials like plant seeds and human sperm, built in a facility in lava tunnels on the moon, could be a resource to start life in case of a global disaster, said Jekan Thanga, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. (Photo by sjmck/Creative Commons)

An engineering team at the University of Arizona is proposing a “doomsday vault” – in lava tunnels on the moon – to preserve the wondrous diversity of life on Earth if the apocalypse comes.

Perhaps guided by Hollywood disaster movies, partly by the looming danger of climate change, the team has proposed a packing list in case a global disaster makes Mother Earth unlivable.

Plant seeds and spores. Egg and sperm from creatures great and small. All cryogenically preserved in a vault, like a sort of “lunar ark.”

But wouldn’t ‘global insurance’ be expensive?

Jekan Thanga, an assistant professor, is guiding a group of graduate and undergraduate students to conceive a “backup plan” of vital resources.

It’s a “modern global insurance policy,” said Thanga, a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the university’s College of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.

The plan, still in the conceptual phase, envisions a facility tucked in lava tunnels discovered on the moon in 2013, where the genetic resources could be housed until needed.

“I think it’s going to become part of the disaster-preparation toolset, or tool kit,” Thanga said.

The plan includes ways to store as much organic material as possible in the tunnels, and the supply needs to be as diverse as Mother Nature.

“We needed a whole ecosystem to follow us, particularly to support us in terms of food, support us in terms of living,” he said.

How such a network of tunnels could be created is as intriguing as what goes inside, according to UArizona.

Lava tunnels like the moon’s subway system

The 200 lava tubes discovered in 2013 formed billions of years ago, when lava melted its way through soft rock just below the lunar surface.

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Coincidence is creativity’s partner. The tunnels just so happen to be the same size as modern subways, making them ideal for storage. The tunnels, about 325 feet in diameter, could provide protection from harmful exposure to solar radiation and surface temperature changes. According to space.com, temperatures can fluctuate from 260 degrees Fahrenheit during the lunar day – when the moon is fully exposed to the sun – to minus-280 degrees at night 14 days later.

Conceptual drawings of the facility include a preservation analysis laboratory, elevator shafts and a caterpillar-like “cryo-preservation module.”

Anything that’s stored and moved around in the tunnels would be kept at cryogenic temperatures of about minus-292 degrees Fahrenheit. Shelves to house specimens could use a phenomenon called “quantum levitation” so that they could stay in place, the university’s news release says.

“It’s like they’re locked in place by strings, but invisible strings,” Thanga said in the release.

Yes, all of this is easier said than done

Roadblocks to the doomsday plan are inevitable, especially as little is known about how humankind or other life can fare in the moon’s environment.

“Most of the time, you know, folks don’t operate within cryogenic environments,” he said. “So the whole field of robotics in cryogenics, or even humans operating in cryogenic environments, needs to be further mastered.”

Logistics is another obstacle.

“What ends up being the challenge here is just to know the sheer amount of cargo that you need to carry,” Thanga said. “The overall number of rocket launches going would be about 250, maybe a little bit more if we’re going to go 500 individuals per species.”

So, can I get a ticket to ride?

The project may take decades, but researchers say it still has considerations in the here and now. One thing on Thanga’s mind is that launching supplies to the moon isn’t cheap.

“It’s still going to be very expensive in terms of rocket launches at current prices,” he said.

But a round trip is more costly on the front end – in other words, getting to the moon takes more money than getting back to Earth. If the planet’s still there, that is.

“What we’ve also learned in our own studies, over the years, is that the return trip from the moon to Earth is actually a lot cheaper than the forward trip,” Thanga said.

Ethan Kispert ee-thun kis-pert
News Reporter, Phoenix

Ethan Kispert expects to graduate in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in business. He is working for Cronkite News as a digital reporter this spring.

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