Noah's Ark on the Moon

With this essay by Bernard Foing, Astrobiology Magazine presents the second in our series of ‘Gedanken,’ or thought experiments – musings by scientists on various "what if" scenarios. Gedanken experiments, which have been used for hundreds of years by scientists and philosophers to ponder thorny problems, rely on the power of the imagination to project these scenarios to logical conclusions. They do not involve lab equipment or, often, experimental data. Instead, they can be thought of as focused daydreams. Yet, as in the case of Einstein’s Gedanken experiment about what it would be like to hitch a ride on a light wave, they can lead to important scientific breakthroughs.

SMART-1 principal scientist Bernard Foing.
Photo Credit: Leslie Mullen

Bernard Foing is the principal scientist for the European Space Agency’s SMART-1, a spacecraft that is currently in orbit around the moon. He is also the director of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group. In this essay, he suggests that the moon could act as a lifeboat in case Earth is ever struck down by a major catastrophe. A lunar laboratory that could store DNA and cultivate different life forms would be a vital resource for helping our planet begin the long process of recovery. Bringing life to the moon could also teach us how to immigrate to other worlds in the solar system.

Noah’s Ark on the Moon
By Bernard Foing

Within the next few hundreds of years, a large asteroid could collide with our planet. 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.

We also face the possibility of manmade catastrophes. A nuclear conflict could end life as we know it and destroy a large part of the biosphere. Global warming, whether it occurs through manmade pollution or because of some natural climate cycle, also could result in the extinction of many species.

But if we have a laboratory where we can maintain a DNA bank and a pool of species, creating a modern Noah’s Ark, then we can potentially recover from such catastrophes.

The painting titled "K/T Hit" by artist Donald E. Davis. This impact occurred 65 million years ago, coinciding with the dinosaur extinctions.
Image Credit: Don Davis

I think the moon could be used as such a repository in case there is ever a global disaster on Earth. As a lifeboat, the moon is a lot closer than Mars. Plus, we don’t know yet if there is life on Mars, and we have to figure that out before we do any life experiments there.

We would need to have more than just a DNA bank on the moon, because we have learned from biology that life is more than the expression of information coded in DNA. We need to have some living organisms to really express the full range of life. So our lunar lifeboat would need to have a facility to grow plants and microorganisms, and, for more advanced life forms, to incubate eggs and develop embryos.

In order to maintain this Noah’s Ark, first we could have robots do all the work. A robotic gardener can tend to flowers and microorganisms, and we would operate them remotely from Earth. That would show us how living organisms are able to adapt to the different environment of the moon before we invested in a bigger, more extensive facility. We’ll have to wait a long time before we could have dedicated human gardeners on the moon.

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.

ion engine
Mosaic of lunar images from SMART-1.
Credit: ESA

This is just a bold concept at the moment, and the scientific, technological, and social aspects have to be worked on. Topics like cloning and altering genetic genomes are controversial. Given the social and ethical implications of the science, we should stay within the right legal framework, even while that framework is still evolving.

The virtue of a lunar Noah’s Ark is that the goal is to save life on Earth. It’s detached from direct commercial interests and other conflicts of interest. Plus, it’s a good facility for everyone in the world to think about. Given the pressure of time, the advance of technology, and our shifting perception of ourselves, what will this Noah’s Ark will look like? How many and what species should we bring along? How many individual samples are needed to represent true diversity for a given species? What will be our legacy on the moon if we don’t survive on Earth?

There are, of course, limits to what we could initially bring to our lunar facility. I love whales, but I cannot yet bring whales to the moon. But whales are not that different from some smaller related mammals. So if you could bring these small mammals, and also a bank of whale DNA, there’s still a possibility that in the long term you could recreate whales. And then later, when we build whole biospheres on the moon, we could have lunar seas for our whales to swim in.

Over time, our Noah’s Ark laboratory would help us learn how the totality of life works on a planet. We would see how the types of organisms that we selected for their individual properties interact on the moon, compared to how they behave as part of the Earth’s ecosystem. We can see how some species, like certain plants, would be effective in maintaining a biosphere in a protected artificial environment. This would then show us how to develop biological communities on other planets, like Mars.

Moon base to expand life from Earth.
Credit: NASA

We eventually would need to move out of the greenhouse and make use of the local resources; to live off the land. To develop this ability, we need to do some life science experiments so that by the year 2015, we would know how to develop successful plant growth systems. This knowledge and technology will make our facility more effective as a lifeboat, because then we’ll be relying much less on life stock from the Earth. It would also allow us to develop more extensive human bases with activities on different sides of the moon.

You would need a substantial local human population to sustain the overall system, and to ensure human survival in case of a catastrophe on Earth. A pragmatic way to do this would be to rotate people to go to the moon like we do for Antarctica. The development of a new society and a new economy on the moon would foster knowledge, pave the way toward developing new technologies, and also be a natural next step in our exploration of the solar system.

Other essays by Bernard Foing

Tulips on the Moon
Peaks of Eternal Light
Earth’s Childhood Attic
The Smart One
Wading in Martian Water
Hints of Habitability

Read our first Gedanken experiment, "SETI and the Cosmic Quarantine Hypothesis," by Steven Soter