Monday, October 10, 2016

The Genesis Project: Sending Interstellar Probes to Seed Life on Exoplanets

This artist’s impression shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. Image & Caption Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

German physicist Claudius Gros envisions an interstellar mission that could send microbial life to extrasolar planets which are not permanently inhabitable. The proposed “Genesis Project” aims to send a fleet of robotic spacecraft equipped with an onboard gene laboratory in order to bring life to distant planets with transient habitability.

Gros is a systems theorist at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. He recently studied the feasibility of a low-cost interstellar mission, that could drop microbes on a transiently habitable exoplanet, hastening the evolution by several billion years. The researcher published his study in a paper that lately appeared in Astrophysics and Space Science journal.

The project includes three main steps towards jump-starting life on alien worlds. First of all, it is important to find a suitable candidate among transiently habitable planets. Next, it will be necessary to send there robotic spacecraft for detailed investigations. Finally, after a series of thorough studies, the candidate planet should be ready to be seeded with in situ synthesized lifeforms.

According to Gros the spacecraft could be send to a targeted planet within a few decades with the help of suitable beams of directed energy and decelerated at arrival by time consuming passive means like magnetic sails. He believes that the first probe could be send within a century.

“It is clear, that a Genesis-type mission will be feasible, however some technical and science-related challenges still lie ahead. My personal estimate would be that within 100 years we may see the first Genesis-type probe taking off,” Gros told

In particular, the mission could be achieved by a light-weight interstellar craft, using a robotic gene laboratory for seeding the exoplanet with a brew of in situ synthesized microbes. Next, a precambrian and hopefully thriving biosphere of unicellular organisms would flourish on the alien planet. Complex life should then evolve autonomously once the photosynthetically produced oxygen has had the time to accumulate in the atmosphere.

Hence, the main aim of the Genesis mission is rather to lay the foundations for a self-evolving biosphere. However, since the geo-evolutionary development of a transiently habitable planet could take even a hundred million years, the project has no direct benefit for people on Earth, therefore it should rather be regarded as a one-shot launch-and-forget project.

Shorter time scales could be achievable, but it depends on the effectiveness of searching ideal planet candidates. Some exoworlds would enable better initial seeding that would initiate a geo-evolutionary processes faster, leading to the subsequent emergence of complex and multicellular life.

Gros noted that the project targets more distant destinations, as the nearby celestial bodies could be studied now by current space exploration missions.

“Any close-by star if off limits for the Genesis mission. The reason being, that close-by astronomical object can be targeted for pure science missions,” Gros said.

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