Life takes a really long time to evolve. We – Homo sapiens – have only been around for the last 200,000 years, despite Earth forming 4.5 billion years ago. But what would happen if life was given a kick start? What if we sent a package of microbial 'seeds' to a habitable planet that would otherwise have remained uninhabited?
Claudius Gros, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Goethe University Frankfurt, wants to do just that. His plan, the Genesis project, involves seeding exoplanets with transient habitability (where they will be habitable for a while) with life in order to "fast forward evolution by three to four billion years".
His plan, detailed on the pre-print server arxiv.org, would see a low-cost robotic spacecraft that has a box full of microbial life forms – bacteria and unicellular eukaryotes – sent to exoplanets identified as being potentially habitable. He would target planets that are not permanently habitable – while life could potentially thrive there, time constraints would mean it never had time to grow and develop independently.
What Gros's box of life would do is equivalent to what happened during the Cambrian explosion on Earth – a relatively short period in time 542 million years ago when most of the major animal phyla emerged. The Genesis project spacecraft would orbit a planet to ensure no other lifeforms existed before delivering the seeds of life. And then it would be a case of sitting back and letting life evolve.
One thing about the project Gros is keen to emphasise is that it would be of no benefit to humanity. In all likelihood, we would be long gone before anything resembling intelligent life evolved on a Genesis planet. "Time doesn't matter. And that's the only reason it is feasible," he told IBTimes UK.
Gros has been considering the Genesis project for many years. When he was young, he visited the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. "In the shop you can buy slices of these very old trees," he said. "You can hold them in your hand and take them home. They are very beautiful ... You can have something that is hundreds of millions years old. These kinds of things make you think about life on a long-term perspective. As we see more and more exoplanets are being found it makes you think about life on other planets."
He decided to put forward his proposal following the announcement of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative – a project aiming to send miniature spacecraft to our closest star, Alpha Centauri. The success of this project is in its time scale. Scientists want to develop technology that will travel at 100 million miles per hour – meaning it could arrive for a flyby of the star within a generation.
"Before the Starshot announcement, it was more science fiction that we could travel to stars. But it's now a realistic endeavour. There's an essential difference [with the Genesis project]. The Starshot project is for human benefit in the sense we would like to gather information. That means the travelling times cannot be too long. Maybe 20-30 years. They can only do a flyby. Which is fantastic but you are not able to stop.
"The Genesis spacecraft needs to stop. And stopping is acknowledged by everyone in the field as a big problem. It's a bigger problem than getting the thing going because it takes energy – and a few centuries. For the Genesis project it doesn't matter because time doesn't matter. It's not for human benefit."
So why not do it? The idea the Genesis project would have no positive effect on humanity is one of the arguments both for and against it. Critics say we should not spend money on projects we will never benefit from. The ethical argument against the project is that we should not play God.
The idea of seeding a planet with transient habitability effectively means it is doomed from the start. Advanced life should never have evolved there in the first place. But Gros said this is not really a problem when we are discussing the timescales involved: "Short term in this sense means 500 million years at least," he said of any chosen exoplanet.
"This is short for the Earth, but not for many other things. I mean there are people who think you should never have children because it's the same issue – after 100 years they will die. Now the question is philosophical – what is life? For me the value of life is not in eternal life, but the cycle of life. For me, the beauty of life is not eternal life."
He said ideally humans could receive data sent back by Genesis to observe life evolving on another world. But realistically, there may be no one on Earth to listen out for it. "The whole idea of Genesis probe is it would work also if civilisation or interest on Earth faltered," he said. "Even if there was civil war and we destroy ourselves, it would still work.
"Of course it is controversial. People have very different opinions on that on if we should do it. For me personally it's one of the attractive parts. That we are doing something that is not for us."