Spaceflight Insider

The Genesis Project: Sending interstellar probes to seed life on exoplanets

Artist's impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting Proxima Centauri.

An artist’s depiction 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 Earth and orbits within the star’s habitable zone where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. Image & Caption Credit: M. Kornmesser / ESO

German physicist Claudius Gros envisions an interstellar mission that could send microbial life to extrasolar planets that are not permanently uninhabitable. The proposed “Genesis Project” aims to send a fleet of robotic spacecraft equipped with onboard gene laboratories 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. His study was published in a paper that appeared in Astrophysics and Space Science.

beam propelled sail

Using beams from Earth, a probe with a solar sail could be sent to another star system. Image Credit: Breakthrough Starshot

The project would involve three main steps toward jump-starting life on alien worlds. First, find a suitable candidate among transiently habitable planets. Next, send robotic spacecraft for detailed investigations. Finally, after a series of thorough studies, the candidate planet can be seeded with in-situ synthesized lifeforms.

According to Gros, the spacecraft could be sent to a targeted planet within a few decades with the use of suitable beams of directed energy to accelerate and magnetic or electric sails to decelerate at arrival. He believes the first probe could be sent within a century.

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

In particular, the mission could be achieved using a lightweight interstellar craft with 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 might then evolve autonomously once the photosynthetically produced oxygen has had time to accumulate in the atmosphere.

The main aim of the Genesis mission is 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. It is regarded as a one-shot launch-and-forget project.

Shorter time scales could be achievable, but it would depend on the effectiveness of searching ideal planet candidates. Some exo-worlds might enable better initial seeding and initiate geo-evolutionary processes faster. This could lead to the subsequent emergence of complex and multicellular life.

Gros noted the project targets more distant destinations.

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

 

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Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

Reader Comments

This is a terrible plan. First off, this whole mission plan violates the outer space treaty in that it is designed to contaminate planets with earth microbes. Second, what if the planet already has life on it? The Earth bacteria could potentially cause a mass-extinction on the planet it lands on. Third, this could also come to bite us in the rear – if we eventually manage to travel to that planet ourselves, who’s to say that the bacteria hasn’t mutated into some sort of super-plague?

100 yrs. seems very soon. It depends on progress, not just in space transportation, but even more in astrobiology. IMO we would need to be very sure of not interfering with a separate biology.

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