Main image © Lunar Missions Ltd
How do you keep your photos, videos and files safe? Put them on a bunch of cloud servers? Nope – you bury them on the Moon.
The hugely ambitious and not-for-profit Lunar Mission One (LM1) is planning to do just that by inserting a couple of digital archives into a borehole in Moon's south pole in the mid-2020s.
The perfect vacuum
"It's the perfect vacuum," says David Iron, CEO of Lunar Missions Ltd and the founder of Lunar Mission One. "We will deep-drill into the Moon to create a hole with wonderful environmental qualities for preservation, probably better than anywhere else – it's -150°C down there, there's literally zero atmosphere, and whatever goes down the hole could survive a very, very long time."
Cue the idea to plant the modern equivalent of a time capsule, in which 'Life on Earth' can be stored as a file. "We know the volume of the borehole, but not the material we will use for storage, so the data density is TBC – it could be 10TB, or a petabyte or more," says Iron.
The format may be down to the scientists, but LM1 is advising its supporters use digi.me, an app that gathers personal data from around the web. Anyone can join up and submit their own private archive – or 'digital memory box' – of text, photos, audio or video, and LM1 will put it inside the Moon.
The billion-year archive
LM1 will bury two archives – one for private individuals, and one global database publicly assembled over the next decade, a lot like the internet. It will contain the history of humankind, a species database of the Earth's biodiversity, and much more besides, and will itself also be available online.
"There's a reasonable prospect that this capsule could be discovered in the future – it's more likely than something sent into the solar system," says Iron, referencing the 'golden discs' currently hurtling into deep space on both Voyager probes, launched in 1977.
As well as storing their digital files, archivists can also submit their DNA code in the form of a single strand of hair, which will be permanently tagged with an individual's personal details. "It's these private archives that will fund the other archive, and the space mission," says Iron.
"It's a fantastic opportunity – creating the archive will be a huge educational project." Pricing hasn't been announced, but a small 'digital memory box' is likely to be in the region of US$100.
The fourth sign
It's all very well burying a digital archive or two, but how will anyone in the far future know where to look? "We need a permanent sign that will last for a billion years, and we call this the fourth sign," says Iron, suggesting that insects or some other intelligence may have taken over the Earth or the Universe in 65 million years time. Who knows?
"We need to invert the normal logic of searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence by transmitting; they can come to us," he says, pointing out that the Sun itself is the first sign, the second is the Earth as a life-bearing planet, and the third is the Moon, an integral part of the Earth's system.
"All we need is a fourth sign that says 'look here!' … I don't know what that's going to be because we're going to make a public challenge of it," says Iron.
The 'fourth sign' could be on the surface, it could be orbiting the Moon, it could be a radio with a billion-year battery, or an obelisk like that in Arthur C Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Organising the competition and choosing the final design/concept/idea will be down to the British Interplanetary Society, which is holding a Lunar Mission One event in June 2016.
Although the digital archive is a good way of getting people interested in the mission, and helping to fund it, at its core LM1 is about hard-nosed space science. "It's an opportunity to use an existing idea for a space-science mission to deep-drill on the Moon," says Iron, "because there are good scientific reasons for driving beyond a couple of metres."
LM1's lander – which will probably be launched by SpaceX – will use a variant of wire-line drilling to get down to between 20 and 100 metres to collect and analyse lunar rock up to 4.5 billion years old.
The techniques pioneered by LM1 could have plenty of economic spin-out for drilling on Earth, with mineral and oil companies expected to be interested in the intellectual property rights.
Man has never landed a robotic or manned mission at the Moon's south pole, a hostile area but also possibly a watery one, especially in the permanently shadowed areas. LM1 plans to land there, and that's a huge scientific challenge. "The problem with the South Pole is we need a precision landing because it's quite rocky, and the landing site would need to be about the size of a football pitch," says Iron.
However, by the time LM1 reaches its destination it probably won't be the first lander to do so. Luna 27 – a mission by Roscosmos and the European Space Agency – will land on the Moon in 2020, also near the south pole, while China will put a Chang'e probe on the Moon's dark side in 2018. Manned missions are on the horizon, too; Russia has said it wants to send a manned mission in 2029, China by 2036.
"We may even be fifth or sixth there," says Iron, though it's possible that the precision landing technology being developed for LM1 will be of interest to space agencies looking at distant moons in the solar system. "It could be re-used on Mars and the moons of Saturn and Jupiter," adds Iron.
"One of the big drivers in space exploration is the search for primitive forms of life, and the expectation is that it's more likely to be detected below the surface rather on or above it, so the deep drilling technology has relevance to astro-biology and the science of life."
Much of this is government-sponsored prospecting, but running alongside is the Google Lunar XPRIZE, with 16 companies competing to send a robotic mission to the Moon first, and so claim a US$30 million prize.
One of the XPRIZE hopefuls, Astrobotic, will carry a first edition of LM1's digital archive (as well as its own MoonMail) – and it's likely that the actual LM1 mission in the 2020s will be contracted out to one of the XPRIZE competitors. The launch is likely to be on a SpaceX rocket.
Either way, LM1 touches on a lot of the issues surrounding the exploration of space. "We're part of the debate on whether we should go straight to Mars or build-up the Moon as a stepping point, we're bringing in private sector resources into a new space movement, and we're part of citizen science education," says Iron, himself a space project financing expert.
"People still regard space as a sphere of government and ownership, but that's breaking down – the Apollo era is in the past."
Does your digital self fancy a one-way trip to the Moon to exist forever as possibly one of the only surviving fragments of human existence, in a vacuum? There's no pressure.