A Space-Faring Backup for Earth’s Biota

Allison Guy
April 22nd 2012

Elon Musk, the chief executive of spacecraft company SpaceX, believes we need to reinvigorate popular interest in space colonization, not just to boldly go where no man has gone before, but to save life from extinction. In an interview with Nature, Musk asserts that "I think we need planetary redundancy to protect against the unlikely possibility of natural or man-made Armageddon." He joins recent pleas from physicist Steven Hawking and science journalist William Burrows, who have both argued that the only way to save Earth is to leave it.

While it sounds far-out, there's nothing more practical than spreading copies of Earth's life and cultures through the universe. As meteors, global glaciations, and a certain bipedal species of ape have shown, Earth is exquisitely vulnerable to catastrophe. We already have terrestrial storage for life's diversity, including San Diego's Frozen Zoo, and the Svalbard Seed Vault, which has 400,000 seed samples of food crops. A backup in orbit, on the moon, or on a new planet is the next logical step.

Image via Atlas Obscura.

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Jarrad
Posted 13/06/2012 – 10:45

These ideas are very seductive; the very stuff of sci-fi. I believe that the eventual destiny of sentient life is to spread life where possible, but I think discussions about whether to do it now are preemptive. Truth is, space is an unbelievably harsh place to sustain life; there is only one example of a 'space ship' capable of supporting it. I would inverse the argument of the article; the only way to spread life into space is to 'save' (or at least understand better) earth.

Allison Guy
Posted 24/04/2012 – 17:50

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, and I agree. These are only stopgap measures. I read somewhere recently that our current understanding of ecology is at the same level of alchemist's understanding of chemistry in the middle ages. In the near-future we may be able to conserve and re-create species via "frozen zoos", cloning, and genetic manipulation, but may never be able to recreate every relationship in a healthy ecology.

Brandon Keim
Posted 23/04/2012 – 19:07

San Diego’s Frozen Zoo and the Svalbard Seed Vault might store diversity in a numerical sense, but they can't store the living reality of that diversity -- and whatever is spread through the universe via attempts at planetary redundancy won't be "backups" or "copies," but miniscule fragmentary seeds of Earthly life. Which isn't a reason against doing it, and who knows what marvelous things might grow from those seeds ... but it's important to think of them clearly, and not imagine them as a hedge against irreplaceable losses.

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