Lunar Ark: Plan To Save All Of Earth’s Species, LATEST NEWS!
Andrea Macdonald, founder of ideaXme interviews Jekan Thanga, PhD., Head of SpaceTREx laboratory, Principal Investigator of the NASA-funded ASTEROIDS laboratory and Assistant Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Arizona. They discuss the latest developments at the laboratories. Moreover, ideaXme receives a news exclusive relating to SpaceTREx’s proposal to build a “Noah’s Ark” on the Moon. Jump to timestamp — 37 minutes to discover that news!
The Lunar Ark
SpaceTREx in collaboration with the ASTEROIDS laboratory has proposed utilization of lunar lava tubes as a modern day “Lunar Ark.” These subsurface lava tubes are only 4–5 days journey from Earth and are hypothesized to have been pristine for 3–4 billion years. These shelters could be the ideal location for preserving seeds, spores sperms, eggs, and DNA of Earth’s rich biodiversity. They estimate needing to preserve 6.7 million species of plants, animals and fungi.
The Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration (SpaceTREx) Laboratory at University of Arizona’s Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Department develop systems engineering design and control solutions for space, planetary and asteroid exploration, using small spacecraft, robots and sensor network devices. Research is focused on developing enabling technologies for extreme environment exploration, interplanetary CubeSat explorers and on-orbit servicing spanning spacecraft constellations, propulsion, power and communications. The laboratory and key personnel have a diverse range of expertise including CubeSat design, development, launch expertise, smart system design and control using bio-inspired and neural network control paradigms, space weather and extreme-environment robotics.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx talks of the news relating to the Lunar Ark
In the next week or so at the Interplanetary Small Satellite Conference, we’re going to be giving an update to the world about progress that we’ve been making on the Lunar Ark project. And I can give you an early indication of what that update will entail. We’ve branched out into two fronts, further exploring and advancing the Lunar Ark concept. One is, we’ve been looking at how we could start the Lunar Ark project in the near term. In the original idea we talk of preserving six point seven million species. It’s going to take a lot of resources. It’s going to require advancement in cryogenic. We think it’s at least 30 years away. But can we get started now? Can we at least start to see important bio matter there as we speak? And so that’s the second thrust that we’re looking at. What would it take specifically to go out and explore these lava tubes in one mission and in that second mission? What would it take to take seed samples just like from Svalbard and deploy them into these laboratories? And so we’ve been doing some early feasibility studies on those fronts. And on a second thrust, we’ve been trying to we’ve been identifying the component technologies that are needed for this whole effort of, you know, the Lunar Arc. And one of that means transport of all this bio matter from Earth on at least a five day journey to the Moon under cryo conditions. And so you need some kind of cryo container that can do that for you. And so we’ve developed a prototype cryo container experiment. And so we’ll be sharing details about that in this upcoming conference. And that, too, is another effort to further build up the building blocks necessary for the bigger project.
Official Bio of Jekan Thanga
Jekan Thanga heads the Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration (SpaceTREx) Laboratory at University of Arizona. He is the Principal Investigator of the NASA-funded ASTEROIDS (Asteroid Science, Technology and Exploration Research Organized by Inclusive eDucation) Laboratory which is in the process of being upgraded into a research center. Jekan Thanga has 20 years of experience working in the aerospace research sector and is a senior member of the AIAA. He has been an expert reviewer for government agencies including NASA and NSF and has been a Subject Matter Expert on space matters for DoD organizations.
The ideaXme Interview with Jekan Thanga
Today, we’re going to talk about space science and engineering. We’re going to talk to the Head of SpaceTREx who will take us through the latest developments. In your words, who are you?
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:16:24] I’m Jekan Thanga, an assistant professor. As you mentioned, I’m head of the Space of Terrestrial Robotics Exploration Laboratory based at the University of Arizona. We work on small spacecraft, space technology, new methods of exploration — new and upcoming areas that are, of course, are very interesting and exciting in the arena of space exploration.
Andrea Macdonald, founder of ideaXme: [00:16:51] All of this work has culminated in a big idea in which you bring in all the recent technological and engineering breakthroughs and innovations from SpaceTREx. Could you take us through what that project is and also the specific technology and engineering associated with it?
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:17:23] Sure, I but I’d like to give a little of a background about SpaceTREx first. It was founded about eight years ago, a new era really in space. As you know the space era really started in 1959. We are now in the midst of the next revolution. And that started a that in the mid 2000s. And when we started SpaceTREx about eight years ago, it was at a later stage. But what was important is, is this revolutionizing of and miniaturizing a space technology. We’re seeing miniaturization at play on the ground. We’re seeing, smartphones, which are, compared to the 1960s, like supercomputers in your pocket. And we’re seeing all kinds of amazing things, particularly because technology is accelerating. In that regard, finally technologies caught up to space. It is impacting space directly. And one of the major achievements has been the smartphone. We can take smartphone electronics and directly fly them in low earth orbit without next to no modifications. They can, in fact, withstand the radiation conditions, the temperature conditions, just because they’ve become so hardy. And that’s the initial sort of break in this invisible glass ceiling that is space exploration, partly because of how much energy it takes to escape Earth’s gravity. Well, then, of course, there’s an ongoing revolution now with building better and low cost rockets and making rocket rides prominent, but also routine enough that it’s not a dangerous task anymore. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting there. And so in the midst of this, we have been looking at all new ways of exploiting these advances towards enabling humanity to explore further and deeper into the far corners of the solar system.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:19:42] So there are places on every planet that we have explored so far that we’ve gotten great pictures, but there’s still places that we have remained untouched or unexplored by humans or by, human led robotic craft. And, let’s just speak, for example, about the Moon or Mars. There are extreme environments on the Moon and Mars — craters, canyons, cliffs that you would see just like on Earth, but that are unreachable by current robotic spacecraft. And so that’s a starting point for us, to send next generation crafts to go out and explore these environments. That’s where all the interest lies, particularly for the planetary scientist, particularly for the geologists. Then we’re looking at different kinds of platforms, not just rovers and wheeled vehicles. In low gravity environments rolling is not the most efficient mode of transport anymore. It’s actually jumping around. And so we’re developing robots that will go out and jump around to explore from place to place. And then, of course, just recently we saw the Mars helicopter and how much excitement that brought the all the potential of having an air vehicle. And so we are also exploring similar things about sending air vehicles to a lot of these planets, because a lot of them are gaseous, a lot of them have a thick atmosphere. And so atmospheric exploration is a very credible future entry point to learning a lot more about planets.
Andrea Macdonald, founder of ideaXme: [00:21:24] Can we break it down into the specific technologies and engineering and entities that you have created as a team from the SphereX Robot right the way through to CubeSat. Can you take us through the very specific engineering, innovations and technologies, so that we have a context for the big idea that you’re going to be taking these breakthroughs and innovations to?
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:22:10] Yes, we’ve taken a lot of the work that we’ve been developing over those past eight years and have amalgamated them or they’ve become aggregated in that sense to something bigger. The SphereX Robot, is as the name suggests a spherical robot that’s meant to be like a quadcopter operating in off-world environments, particularly when there’s no atmosphere. So, instead of, propellers for flight, this thing has rocket thrusters or a hopping mechanism to move around. And of course, for navigation on board cameras and the ability to take on the latest and greatest science instruments provided they can fit in a miniature package. The whole thing is the size of a beach ball. So about 30 centimetres in diameter, that’s been one of our longest efforts. But that’s sort of a representative of our other projects. Other areas where we’ve been making significant headway has been in the infusion of machine learning and artificial intelligence in the design of next generation space missions. And so we’ve come up with a tool called IDEAS, which is the integrated design engineering of swarms, autonomous swarms, and being able to use swarms as spacecraft to go out and explore not the eight planets that we’ve explored and got great images, but some of the two million asteroids which are yet to be explored, two million plus asteroids that’s still the tip of the iceberg. We may see many more that are even smaller, that could be the size of a suitcase.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:24:00] And so that’s this next generation exploration that we’re going to have to do to learn about — how the solar system formed, going to these bodies. So IDEAS is a tool that would enable teams of spacecraft to go up rapidly and perform reconnaissance of the Moon or an asteroid. Then we have AMDCO which is another tool which lets you do automated robot design for planetary exploration but to do so rapidly. Oftentimes, you have a new mission coming up, the deadline for this proposal might be a matter of 30 days to 90 days. You can, of course, try to do that for every new situation. But it, of course, becomes very challenging with the small university team. We’re talking about a team of 20 to 30 individuals. Oftentimes, we’re also competing against NASA centres and space agencies where you may have thousands of people and who are as qualified as we are. And so we’re using machine learning to even our odds in that sense, so that we can have teams of 30 people compete against teams of perhaps 100. The advantage, of course, is machine learning is improving constantly. Every 18 months, we’re still following Moore’s Law. We’re seeing doubling in computational speed and power.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:25:25] And of course, the other is just being able to use machine learning in our case to come up with out-of-the-box solutions, creative solutions that otherwise humans may not have thought of. We may have our own biases, caging ourselves in thought boxes so to speak. And the machine learning systems can sometimes breakdown that cycle because they’re sort of starting off from a blank slate and they’re exploring almost like infants from a new perspective. So, that’s a whole area that we’ve been doing through several of these mission design tools. Then we’re developing FemtoSats which is a platform that’s even smaller than CUBESATS. Their dimensions of three centimetres by three centimetres. That’s the 1F FEMTOSAT. We made a major announcement of that in twenty sixteen. The big advantage is that it can reduce down costs. So you can send one of these things into space right now, if possible, for about a thousand dollars to the low earth orbit. But the International Space Station, if you do send it out into orbit, into a sort of a free flying orbiting mission, it would be about three thousand dollars. And that’s a significant reduction in launch cost. But of course, the spacecraft is a lot smaller but the technology is there now. We have miniaturized everything to the point that, Sputnik can now fit in the palm of your hand, so including with advanced instruments, cameras, laser range finders and so on.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:27:06] And we’ve been looking at deployment of swarms. And that’s a whole new way of exploring with things like FemtoSats. At the moment, when you have a spacecraft, it’s usually one large spacecraft. It goes out and takes a picture of an event, takes a picture of a planet. WithFemtoSats and these distributed small spacecraft, you can send tens, hundreds, maybe thousands of them to do multiple observation. So think about measuring a cloud and observing a cloud from a distance, taking a single photograph. That’s great. But there’s so much complexity in that cloud in terms of what kinds of variances and distribution of perhaps different chemicals, temperature differences, you know, differences in humidity, for example. The next possibility is actually to get multiple samples off the cloud and be able to bring that together. And so that gives you a lot richer data. In fact, that’s the type of data atmospheric scientists are looking for to better describe our climate and our weather systems. That’s the next level that we need to get to, to be able to better describe a complex systems like weather. And similarly, the same could be said for all complex off-world environments.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:28:28] And so those are the really the big projects. The one new emerging area has been developing and branching off from FemtoSats technology is the idea of coming out with miniature balloon payloads that would be flying in these off-world environments where there’s an atmosphere. It could be Mars, it could be Venus, it could be Jupiter, of course, and the other gaseous planets. The idea here is to send payloads that are less than 100 grams that would have all the latest sophisticated instruments. And we’d send tens, hundreds of them, and they would be forming a constellation around these planets to constantly observe events up front and look and in situ. Imagine being able to be in the clouds of, Venus or Jupiter and getting up from images. Those are the possibilities that’s going to be facilitated by technologies like this. Individually when one of these things encounter some kind of dangerous situation, when they get damaged or destroyed, it’s not game over. We have many more to replace them and keep the mission going. And so, for that matter, it’s going to be a whole different way of looking at missions, a whole different paradigm that ultimately enables us to do more.
Andrea Macdonald, founder of ideaXme: [00:29:59] You are also looking at the technologies and engineering within the area of extreme refrigeration using quantum mechanics.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:30:12] Yes, that’s a very new area we’ve looked into, thanks to efforts on the Lunar Ark project. And it turns out, exploring the Moon is where this technology might become important, very critical. Naturally, speaking, cryo operations have multiple applications and are relevant for exploring multiple extreme environments. On the Moon, the Permanently Shadowed Regions, are of great strategic interest for us because most of the water reserves on the Moon are likely to be in these places. They have been in the dark for millions of years. The temperatures are well below minus 150. And current robotic systems, current mechanical systems cannot operate on those cold temperatures just because they all sorts of strange things, everything from jamming to fusing of metals. And so that poses major challenges the conventional ways of doing things. And that’s where quantum methods come in, which is which is a whole new fantastic area. We have barely scratched the surface in this. But the idea of being able to lock objects between themselves but having them at a distance and having no direct physical presence between them, it’s almost like you have an invisible barrier, maybe invisible strings and rods, attaching them and holding them together.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:31:54] You can literally walk through these things. And so in many ways, it’s out of this world. It almost sounds magical. But such phenomena appears when you get to such cool temperatures, particularly using superconducting materials. And so in that sense, we are we’re also getting started. The other, of course, with cryo storage, as you mentioned, of substances and cryo storage may be very interesting because that may be a way to store bio matter, including eggs, sperm, seeds and spores for long periods of time without any kind of oxygen degradation. And so if you can store them in cryo conditions, they could last maybe hundreds of years, maybe thousands of years. And that, of course, alone has as many benefits, apart from just saving our DNA as a backup to interstellar travel. At the moment, all on modes of interstellar travel are going to take tens of years, hundreds of years. It’s going to be a long waiting time. And if we’re going to have people alive, they’re going to go through many generations perhaps, and going back to sci fi, storing them, freezing them in this form may be practical.
Andrea Macdonald, founder of ideaXme: [00:33:16] Let’s talk about the way the Lunar Ark project came about. Can you take us through the process — from ideation right the way through to getting it to this stage of this project and the problem it solves. Please go through the specifics of the problem/s, it solves.
Chelyabinsk Meteor Wake Up Call
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:33:43] SpaceTREx has been active, as I said, for eight years. And in that eight years, we have had some notable events that have happened that ignited and better related to us some of the dangers that we faced. In 2013, just as the lab was being formed, we had a major event happened over Chelyabinsk. A meteor impact over Russia caused the 500 kiloton explosion. That explosion was maybe 50 times that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Had it impacted a city on the ground, it would have taken out maybe a hundred thousand people, luckily it did not. It exploded mid-air. A lot of people still got hurt, a lot of glass damage and, you know, due to shock and vibration. Nevertheless, that was a close call. That’s likely to happen every hundred years. Before that we had Tunguska, also in Russia. Back then people were totally perplexed seeing this huge explosion in the middle of Siberia with all these trees flattened, major firestorm and secondary activity. And of course, you can then go back and see these events. There are events that happened at a 100 year scale. There are then events that happened perhaps a 100 million year scale. The 100 hundred million year scale is quite scary by all accounts, because that goes back to the KT event that wiped out the dinosaurs in which we had either a comet or an asteroid, about four to eight kilometres that impacted Earth. It would have ruptured the crust, caused a series of secondary events, including, a never before seen tsunami, firestorm, and both of which would have produced all kinds of damage all around, physical damage. But the firestorm would have been the worst because it would have created a lot of ash in the atmosphere, which would have been blanketing the planet, blanketed enough such that the temperatures drop perhaps for 100 years.
[00:36:07] Similarly, another close call for humans was the Toba supervolcanic event that happened approximately seventy five thousand years ago. And there it was likely that there was a massive ash cloud. The evidence indicates at least 10 years of continuous winter, followed by a thousand year cooling cycle. It is likely that Homo Sapiens that had gotten out of Africa would have been wiped out. And that’s interesting because there have been advances in DNA technology to look back to our great ancestors. And it does not go back beyond seventy five thousand years, even though the indirect evidence suggests humans have been around for at least two hundred thousand. So what about that first hundred twenty five thousand missing? And that could be due to these bottlenecks that have been caused by something like a Toba near extinction event in which it reduced the population of humans down to maybe a few hundred to a thousand people.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:37:31] And so humanity has had many close calls. Between generations we’ve had very close calls. And as a space systems design group, we’ve been better learning about all of these things. And one of the things we’ve been looking at is how to utilize space technology, perhaps not to solve all of these problems. But some of them provide early warning, provide some kind of measure for humans to take some kind of proactive action for safety. Of course, the two areas where space technology could really help is with predicting solar storms. Solar storms, are probably from my point of view, the most dangerous, most immediately dangerous for human civilization at the moment. In the 1850s, we the Carrington Event in which a massive solar eruption happened during a Solar Max (a cycle that occurs about every 11 years) on the sun. That event caused all the electrical systems here on Earth to literally get fried. You would see the night time sky turning into flashes for a period of months afterwards (1855–1867). This was all the electrical activity that was happening in the atmosphere. Our magnetic field literally got sort of blown because of the solar particles coming up. If that were to happen now, our electrical grid, which is everything that we really depend on, satellites, all kinds of other surface electronics could get fried. And there was a study done in 2008 from the US and our National Research Council that predicted that the United States alone would be without electricity for 10 years. And so that’s a very bleak picture.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:39:24] People just ignored it. And so that’s where space technology could help to give some advance warning of such an event occurring. And for us to somehow indicate some level of proactive action, whether to, if there are electrical instruments, have some kind of shielding put on. The next, of course, is meteor impacts. You know, the KT event is massive. We have made progress. I think we can now better detect KT type events, but Chelyabinsk type events maybe not. We had no warning of Chelyabinsk and we probably still don’t. And for that reason, having a constellation of satellites — monitoring this, would give us great capability. So we were in this mode of thinking, looking to duck and avoid and do all kinds of early warnings with space technology when we soon realized maybe that’s not the only situation we’re going to have to deal with. It’s like a soccer player or a goalie in a soccer match. Sometimes they can keep the ball away — “save the ball”. But once in a while, that ball is going to get through. And so in this case, what do you do in a situation where that cataclysm does happen? And so that’s how out thought process shifted towards whatever cataclysm does happen: How do we, perhaps recover from that? How do we perhaps, deal with this?
Andrea Macdonald, founder of ideaXme: [00:41:09] If I can interject, please. One of the in a sense, less dramatic sounding issues is the loss of biodiversity. And if the Lunar Ark is set up, it’s going to store anything from seeds to spores to sperm. Technology is advancing rapidly in this area. And if things are safely stored there, there’s the possibility in the future of protecting against further loss of biodiversity, which is extremely attractive. Can you talk to us a little bit more about that?
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:42:02] Yes, so in parallel to all of these potential cataclysms, we are also seeing the steady loss of biodiversity. Some of it is in humanity’s control. Some of it’s not. It’s happening without our knowledge. It’s almost happening without our control. And it’s very concerning. Certain creatures, more than others directly impact our food supply, particularly creatures like the honeybees. But nevertheless, there’s a whole rich biodiversity out there that we’ve barely explored or know about that are getting wiped out in large numbers, in large scale. They’re getting extinct over overnight, so to speak. And this kind of method of being able to store them in cryo conditions could be a method of preservation if we had had that in the days when humanity was first exploring the islands in the Indian Ocean, we could have saved the Dodo, for example, we could save, you know, all kinds of other creatures that could have, you know, in the in the in the last several hundred years become extinct. And so, the technology is there to at least save them, at least save them for another day so that when the technology further advances. And we are, of course, making very rapid progress to then bring them back to life and in their original form. The other factors could be diseases. There are time to time diseases that could come out and wipe out an entire species. And so in that sense, having a stored copy of them could help us bounce back from that disease. Maybe the disease wipes out an entire population. But then we can reintroduce it post disease and sort of deal with that. So all of this gives us the ability to protect our rich diversity, our natural habitat.
Andrea Macdonald, founder of ideaXme: [00:44:11] There is a global seed bank in Svalbard, an island off Norway’s mainland, but what you’re proposing will be much broader than that. Can you talk to us about how you envisage this happening? For example, the storage area will be in lava tubes on the Moon. Can you talk to the audience about what those, temperatures in the lava tubes also how you plan to get all the equipment and samples, of course, to the Moon?
Discovery of Lava Tubes on the Moon
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:44:57] Yes. In the 2013 timeframe, there was a great discovery made of nearly 200 lava tubes on the surface of the Moon. And it’s likely these lava tubes form networks. These lava tubes are only about four to five days a week from Earth and the likely pristine for three to four billion years because the Moon has not undergone any kind of active tectonics, volcanic eruptions for so long. And so imagine within a four to five day travel radius, what else is there that is untouched for four billion years? On Earth there’s nothing like that because everything gets recycled through plate tectonics of some kind, through weathering erosion. And so for that reason, that became very interesting for us, that something like this to be untouched for so long. So, given that that could be one of the best places to protect what we most value here, in this case, the rich biodiversity, and we could store them in this prior form as opposed to, you know, sort of having something like a mega zoo, because operating one and constantly providing the resources for that is a lot more prohibitive. In this case, you know, you would keep everything in stasis, eggs, spores and seeds forms. And so they would be stored in these lava tunes. The lava tubes, as I said, have been perhaps untouched for four billion years.
Lava Tubes On The Moon
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:46:27] The temperatures in these lava tubes are, incidentally, a constant minus twenty five degrees centigrade, which is the remnants of the heat of formation on the surface of the Moon. Temperatures are very inhospitable on the surface. Temperatures can go, you know, 120 C to 150 C in the daytime and drop down to about -150 C at night. Days and nights on the Moon are, you know, 12 days of the drone, days of night continuous. Then, of course, you have solar particles constantly being bombarded from the sun and of course, interstellar particles. These are all forms of radiation and to then top it off you are have micrometeorites. These are almost like little machine gun bullets coming at very high speeds. And they can have a very serious impact, particularly on astronauts, on any kind of equipment. They get rained on constantly. And so the lava tubes are about 80 to 100 meters below. They’re carved into solid granite and for that matter, they’re sort of well-preserved. And so storing these seeds in this cryo form would be would be ideal. This is going to be slightly different from what Svalbard is doing, which is they’re throwing their seeds around minus 18 to 20 degrees centigrade, and that’s a form of seed storage for long duration.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:48:01] We’re looking at a separate technology, which is cryo storage, which lets you go for many decades, if not hundreds of years. And so this is a more of a longer term solution, a little more expensive, of course, having to, you know, refrigerate at such cool temperatures. So even though the background temperatures will be -25 C, we need to get this down to -180 or -196. And so that’s one of the biggest engineering problems, how to bring it down that cold. And so that’s where we spent a lot of our feasibility studies in coming up with this concept. In fact, that is one of the make or break moments. Can you refrigerate these seeds and bio matter for that long in those lava tubes? And for that matter, we have identified that we could at least do it with solar power. Solar power would be located on the vertical, on the surface of the Moon and, generate the power over 12 days of daylight. And then you would store the power for the remaining days of night time. And otherwise, you know, several of the other engineering challenges are not out of the ordinary are not too difficult. In fact, they’re reasonable conventional situations.
Andrea Macdonald, founder of ideaXme: [00:49:20] Can you talk to us and explain to the audience the plan to use the other technologies beyond cryo refrigeration? For example, you will use the spherical small robots to explore the lava tubes. Can you take us through how the technologies and engineering that you spoke of at the beginning of this conversation will be used within the Lunar Arc?
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:49:56] Even though we’ve discovered these lava tubes from orbital imagery and there are about 200 of them, no human astronaut has set foot on them, no robots have entered them because of the extreme conditions. And so what we propose is the SphereX robots are perhaps one of the well placed robotic platforms to go out into this environment because they could literally fly and hop their way into these lava tubes. The entrance to these lava tubes is almost a vertical tube that’s about 80 to 100 meters deep. And then you fall down into this pit, which then has a bunch of interlinking tubes that look almost like subways, but a lot bigger, 80, 100 meters in diameter and stretching for perhaps for kilometres. And so to get into that is not trivial, of course. And so having a flying hopping vehicle could do that. We need to do a mission of some kind like that to first get an idea, to first prove our hypothesis that indeed, these lava tubes have been undisturbed for three to four billion years, that their current state is pristine, that they’re safe, that they’re not going to collapse any time. And the other factors may also want to check on this is the radiation, natural radiation from the granite rock. And if there’s any remnant radiation there. The other factors we need to look at is, are there additional resources we could exploit? An interesting surprise could be that there could be water ice in these lava tubes as well.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:51:42] And if that’s so, that could be a major game changer because then you don’t have to go to the Permanently Shadowed Regions in Craters to get that water. Rather, it’s going to be right there for you. So all of these factors need to be sort of accounted for. It needs to be a systematic, step by step exploration. And for this lava Lunar Ark effort to take hold, we would need to do perhaps one or two of these exploratory missions first to get to one of these target lava tunes, send a lander that would then deploy these SphereX robots, or we could be a Rover, get into these lava tubes, map them — get all kinds of important data that the geologists need to better confirm these hypotheses that these are what we’re talking about. And once you have those detailed images, laser range finding data, in other words, the dimensional map of these lava tubes, then, we can take it to the next step of our planning and building a base inside. And, of course, you know, considering how precious and old they are, untouched for three to four billion years, they stand as monuments. We would also work towards, if they’re going to build a base in there, to maintain as much of that natural material as possible and not necessarily destroy it for the purposes of a human base.
Andrea Macdonald, founder of ideaXme: [00:53:09] So you have some upcoming news?
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:53:16] In the next week or so at the Interplanetary Small Satellite Conference, we’re going to be giving an update to the world about progress that we’ve been making on the Lunar Ark project. And I can give you an early indication of what those are. And that is on two fronts. We’ve branched out into two fronts, further exploring and advancing the Lunar Ark concept. One is, we’ve been looking at how we could start the Lunar Arc project in the near term. In the original idea we talk of preserving six point seven million species. It’s going to take a lot of resources. It’s going to require advancement in cryogenic. We think it’s at least 30 years away. But can we get started now? Can we at least start to see important bio matter there as we speak? And so that’s the second thrust that we’re looking at. What would it take specifically to go out and explore these lava tubes in one mission and in that second mission? What would it take to take seed samples just like from Svalbard and deploy them into these laboratories? And so we’ve been doing some early feasibility studies on those fronts. And on a second thrust, we’ve been trying to we’ve been identifying the component technologies that are needed for this whole effort of, you know, the Lunar Arc. And one of that means transport of all this bio matter from Earth on at least a five day journey to the Moon under cryo conditions. And so you need some kind of cryo container that can do that for you. And so we’ve developed a prototype cryo container experiment. And so we’ll be sharing details about that in this upcoming conference. And that, too, is another effort to further build up the building blocks necessary for the bigger project.
Andrea Macdonald, founder of ideaXme: [00:55:19] Thank you very much for sharing that. It’s an honour to get news before everybody else. Could you maybe, if you don’t mind, give us some details on the “A team” that you would like on this project. If you were given the choice of people from different fields to make this happen from scientists right the way through to explorers, innovators in different areas, businessmen, philanthropists who would you like to be part of this project to make it happen?
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:56:16] That’s a great question. And thank you. It will require some kind of foundational support. And that’s how Svalbard occurred, not through governments, not through, you know, inter-governmental agencies like the UN. But it started off with a person, a team, a vision that sort of then rolled from there and then it got foundational support. Foundational support then led to support from a country like Norway, which also saw that vision. And so that’s how we also sort of see this going down a similar path. Given what I’ve seen. I think somebody like Jeff Bezos is very well placed in terms of the resources that he has and the vision that he has for humanity’s future to be interested in something like this, possibly. Elon Musk definitely is another individual you might be interested. Many of the individuals who are looking towards enabling an off-world colonization path for humanity’s future. And that, of course, is a very compatible vision with this, because if we’re going to do this, if we’re going to go off world, we can go alone. We need to carry a whole ecosystem with us. That’s the reality. And that the ecosystem is what is going to sustain our health or well-being, our quality of life. And so we need to figure that out.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [00:58:14] And so, how is the Lunar Ark going to actually help safeguard that helps propagate that effort of us being able to then take these copies to build great nature reserves on orbit, just like the concept of O’Neill Cylinders. And then, of course, I would say in terms of support, currently we have seed funding from NASA to show, you know, potential new utilization of lava tubes. But ultimately, an entity such as NASA, such as Space Force will have the capacity and capability to see this through and operate this. So we would also need lots of support organizations in that respect. Apart from that, I would say the other is, individuals just like you out there, all of you are going to make a difference because it’s eye opening. Part of what we’ve talked about, part of the story behind this. But the other is, we all collectively matter. We are all part of that collective decision process because it is, after all, our earth here that we’re trying to protect. And so, your voice, your vision is going to be transformative in that respect. And it’s more of, not necessarily, predicting doomsday tomorrow, but it’s as people come to a certain age, they figure out that, you know, I got to write up a will for myself. You know, that’s not presuming bad things are going to happen here. It’s just the way you want to reposition yourself, be well organized. And as a human civilization, we want to get to that next level of maturity, to not necessarily be reactive to disasters as many times we are, but now become proactive and be ahead of the game.
Andrea Macdonald, founder of ideaXme: [01:00:18] Obviously, as far as what the future holds, you would like this project to come off. Who wouldn’t? You have your big conference coming up. What are the steps for the next five years to work towards making this happen?
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [01:00:47] Fantastic question, I would say it would have to be a very systematic process, part of that process would be exploring of these lava tubes, validating and verifying their pristine lists and usability for such a base. Another, of course, is advances in rocket travel itself. Currently, rocket travel is prohibitively expensive. We have suggested to carry all the bio matter for the Lunar Ark would take around 250 rocket launchers. There’s never been a human led mission of that size. The nearest that was the International Space Station, that took about 40 launches. But that’s where the promise comes in with all these advances in “new space”. Thanks to folks like SpaceX, thanks to this private led race, the potential is there that rocket prices are going to crash if the prices come down to three hundred dollars per kilogram, maybe even a thousand dollars per kilogram, that’s going to be a complete game changer. Now launching 250 rocket launches is not so prohibitive anymore. And we have a lot more capacity to be open about those things. Then, of course, are the resources that we need to carry to set up the base and then apart from the cryo aspects of things, everything else is quite conventional. Everything else is stuff that we see being developed with present day technology. So, it’s only going to advance in the next 30 years.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [01:02:21] So, cryo technology is the last, hurdle that needs to be advanced and that too can be advanced. Thanks to investments here, steady investments, all other aspects of robotics has been accelerating. We can we can see cryo robotics taking on that role as well. We don’t see any major roadblocks there. So all these pieces need to come together, be matured. And then when finally a paper proposal that is ready to fund is there, the technology is ready and mature and ready to roll. It’s not a research project and it’s a developmental project just like the International Space Station. And the other, of course, is the need for unity amongst, all the tribes on Earth, for such a great effort to have this international cooperation. We showed that success before with the International Space Station. You know, the different components of the space station were built in different countries. They never came together on the ground. The first time they came to ground, first time that they were interlinked was in space and they worked perfectly. So it shows if humans can come together, cooperate, we can do great things. And something like that is needed for this.
Andrea Macdonald, founder of ideaXme: [01:03:53] And it is an interesting thought that this could be the project that binds us all together, brings us together and encourages us to collaborate in unprecedented ways. At this point in the show, we ask our interviewees about rich connectedness, the people with whom the interviewees, you, have connected with during the course of your life to move your human story and your work forward. In your particular case, it is even more interesting because whoever impacted you, richly, connected with you, richly may through your work, end up impacting all of us and all future generations. So, I’d really like to ask you that question. With whom have you connected richly in your life to move your work and human story forward?
Jekan Thanga: Rich Connectedness
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [01:05:05] In this last era, since starting up SpaceTREx, I would say, you know, one of the most dominant personalities who’s been a great influence and has been a great collaborator with me has been Professor Erik Asphaug of the University of Arizona who is a planetary scientist. He’s a leader in the area of asteroid science and technology and exploration. Collaborating with him on the idea of an engineering research group working with scientists side by side was something that we very much valued. A lot of great ideas came in. And so he’s been know part of our group, the brains behind a lot of the interesting ideas we’ve been putting together. Then, of course, I would say, the other personality who had a great influence on us, who actually gave us the spark to want to look at lava tubes and these extreme environments on the Moon for the very first time was Dr. Mark Robinson of the University of Arizona. He and his team were the ones who actually discovered the 200 or so lava tubes in 2013. And so he was out there to convince me at that time, a much younger roboticist, to think about exploring this new environment and finding ways to utilize it. You know, our early thoughts on this was for use of these lava tubes as human sanctuaries of some kind. Then I would say, the other influences in my life, both in terms of technical advances have been my previous post-doctoral advisor, Dr. Steven Dubowsky of MIT and my Ph.D. or doctoral advisor, Dr. Gabriele D’Eleuterio of the University of Toronto. And in many cases, you know, the technical capabilities that I been able to show and advance have been, thanks to their mentorship.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [01:07:15] It’s been that steady build-up of capabilities that has brought us collectively to that to this point now. So I would owe a lot of thanks to them for certainly influencing me and giving me the resources to, take our take on, these kinds of problems in the first place, particularly Dr. Dubowsky because he was the initial vision behind sending robots to go out and explore, the next chapter in exploration, particularly extreme environments, and being able to do so in unconventional ways, not just this one big rover or spacecraft, but rather smaller disposable systems and then, committed to further advancing that technology over his lifetime. At a later stage, I was involved in looking at power and the challenges of power. And then and then we then further advanced along that path. And so I would say those are been my big influences, all influencing me both on the technology and to the underlying philosophy behind, going after this, but also the greater vision of utilizing engineering for the greater good of humanity. And so going into space exploration, we’re not going to be escapists. We’re not trying to run away from Earth’s problems. We are ultimately also looking to better see ourselves in the mirror, learn more about ourselves and ultimately protect Earth and see a better future for our humanity and, the rich ecosystem that’s around us.
Andrea Macdonald, founder of ideaXme: [01:09:11] Jekan Thanga Head of SpaceTREx. Thank you very much for your time and thank you for moving the human story forward.
Jekan Thanga, Head of SpaceTREx: [01:09:22] Thank you. Thank you for having me. And it’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
Time stamps on this transcript are 15 minutes ahead.
Links Jekan Thanga PhD.
If you enjoyed this interview check out our recent interview with Dr Samer El Sayari Space Architect.
Credit: Andrea Macdonald founder of ideaXme.
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