February 28, 2006

Noah sets sail for the moon

A number of weeks ago I blogged about how a doomsday seed bank is going to be built in Norway. It now appears, however, that some believe an off-planet repository would be an even better idea.

Bernard Foing is one of these people. He is the principal scientist for the European Space Agency’s SMART-1, a spacecraft that is currently in orbit around the moon, and he is also the director of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group. Fearing a terrible catastrophe, either man-made or natural, Foing would like to see a genetic bank created on the moon to preserve the Earth's biological heritage.

But Foing is hoping for more than just a DNA bank on the moon. He argues that life is more than the expression of information coded in DNA; he believes that actual living organisms need to be maintained in order to express the full range of life. Consequently, he envisions a "lunar lifeboat" that has a facility to grow plants and microorganisms, and, for more advanced life forms, to incubate eggs and develop embryos.

His idea is something right out of Silent Running. In order to maintain the biosphere on the moon, Foing envisions a fleet of robotic gardeners who are controlled remotely from Earth. These robots would tend to flowers and microorganisms. An offshoot of this work, says Foing, is that it would show us how living organisms are able to adapt to different environments prior to a move to a bigger and more extensive facility.

Eventually, humans would take the place of the robots, performing much more sophisticated work involving genomics and cloning.

Foing's idea is intriguing, but a number of issues come to mind.

To date, all self-contained artificial biosphere projects here on Earth have failed. If we can't create an enclosed biosphere on the Earth, then there's no way in hell we can create one on the moon. First thing's first.

Second, the conditions on the moon to support actual living organisms may be more difficult than Foing believes. Even if a perfect biosphere can be created, there are issues of radioactivity, altered electromagnetism (which may or may not have any effect on life), and weaker gravity. We may find that organisms will have a particularly hard time living in the altered conditions of the moon.

I'm also dubious that actual living organisms need to be maintained on the moon. I think a gene bank which contains all the DNA information may suffice. Eventually, a molecular assembler will be able to manufacture any organism from its DNA, making the need for an actual biological forbearer unnecessary (if, however, we suffer some sort of disaster before the advent of molecular assembly nanotechnology, then we may be out of luck. But I'm thinking that if we have an apocalyptic scale event pre-nano era, we're probably S.O.L. anyway). As for the preservation of viable ecosystems, I'd have to think that computer modelling will do the trick and advise us of the necessary variables.

This being said, however, the exercise of maintaining live organisms on the moon may prove fruitful as an experimental precursor to terraforming Mars. It'll give us a good idea of the challenges we may face in bringing organisms to life on another world.

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