Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Songs of Distant Earth and Don Bluth’s film Titan A.E. both feature some sort of “seed ship.” The idea is that humans are too heavy and require too many resources—and don’t live long enough—to travel to other worlds, let alone colonize them. So, we send some samples, some DNA perhaps, instead and build the humans from those seeds when the ship lands. Now, I have to admit I haven’t quite figured out how to do that. Maybe by the next post. Instead, let’s see what can be done to personalize space travel in a similar way. What with all the enthusiasm for putting oneself into space, could we create a one-person seedship of some kind? And is there a business case for such a product?
A sort of Viking burial has been done, in fact: not a seed ship that brings life but a final resting place after death. The ashes of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, his wife (and voice of the Enterprise computer) Majel Barrett, and actor Jimmy Doohan (Scotty) were launched into space in 2009 by a company called Celestis. Many others’ remains have taken a similar trip. And Celestis has made a business out of that service.
The Sprite spacecraft-on-a-chip offers a means to do something analogous. Instead of carrying ashes, a Sprite might carry a person’s genome on board, in chemical form or in digital form. Both might be best. The data embedded in a single human’s genome can be stored as about 1.5 GB of digital information. The genome per se disregards the epigenetic information, which may well be essential to the identity of a person. But a genome is certainly a start. The Sprite’s current design has limited on-board data storage: 32KB, which lives in its CC430 brain. So, storage external to this chip would be required, ideally some sort of non-volatile memory. From there, the genome sequence could be transmitted continuously while the Sprite survives. After that point it no longer announces its presence; it’s a passive sample.
Storing a sample of the DNA itself on board could work well. The DNA molecule is naturally robust. At an ideal, cold temperature (quite easy to maintain beyond the orbit of Mars), it would be readable for over a million years. In a hotter environment, such as Earth orbit, the DNA would degrade with a half life of about 500 years, during which time the chemical bonds would break down and make the DNA unreadable. But with the digital version on board, the chemical instantiation of the molecules and the digital one could sort of back each other up. The transmissions serve as a third level of redundancy, from the receiver’s point of view anyway.
Why do this? I speculate that the sort of person willing to pay the roughly $300 required to personalize one of the original Kicksat Sprite spacecraft would pay more to immortalize his or her unique genome and transmit it into space. Maybe such a person would count on the benevolent, curious, alien civilization that finds this personalized Sprite to try to reconstruct that human from the data and from the DNA sample. Maybe it’s just an ego trip. But I believe that this idea has just as good business prospects as Celestis, and it offers a more optimistic perspective: your body can live on, and maybe even seed the solar system.
After all, life may have started on Earth thanks to an infection from an asteroid impact. DNA may be a very common thing throughout the universe. Here’s our chance to pay it forward.