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Could This Star Trek-Inspired Device Create New Worlds?

In Star Trek films, the Genesis Device could turn inhabitable planets into galactic oases. Meet the scientists who are trying to create a similar device in the laboratory

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An alien world just two-thirds the size of Earth — (REUTERS)
Sep 16, 2016 at 4:02 PM ET

The Genesis Device is a hallowed technological wonder among Star Trek fans. Accidentally deployed in the 1982 film “The Wrath of Khan” to destroy the USS Enterprise, the device ultimately created a new planet, bursting with life, almost instantaneously. Now a new study pre-published on ArXiv brings this concept to life with the Genesis Project, a theoretical discussion of how robotic probes could help some uninhabited planets transform into environments capable of hosting microbes.

“The Genesis project is about giving life [the chance] to evolve all by itself on other planets,” study author Claudius Gros told Space.com. “This process is robotic only in the sense that the initial seeds will be transported by robotic interstellar probes.”

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The best available evidence suggests life began on Earth roughly 1.2 billion years after our planet first formed. And then advanced, multicellular life took even longer to show up on the scene. That’s because even once microbes climbed out of our planets’ primordial soup, it still seems to have taken them at least 10 million years to produce enough oxygen for more advanced life to take form.

In other words, terraforming (using science to make dead planets inhabitable) would likely be a painstakingly slow process. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t tried to speed it up. In 1961, famed astronomer Carl Sagan published an influential study in the journal Science that proposed terraforming Venus by seeding the atmosphere with algae to help form organic compounds and lower temperatures. A decade later Sagan was at it again, publishing an article in the journal Icarus that proposed terraforming Mars by melting its polar ice caps. NASA took this last study seriously, and even published its own version of how that might be accomplished in 1976.

In this new study, Gros picks up where Sagan left off. Gros proposes that robotic probes could help terraform distant planets by carrying single-celled organisms to the surface and leaving them there to fend for themselves. These organisms would be vetted by a team of scientists who would determine which microbes would have the best chance of survival on each candidate planet. Then, we’d wait.

Gros figures things would start off pretty chaotic — he mentions “global-scale ecological disasters” such as “uncontrolled blossoming of unicellular algae” — but he reasons that the excitement will likely die down after several thousand years. Otherwise, Gros’ model would allow evolution to proceed at its normal pace, and we could expect to see a habitable planet only millions of years later.

Interestingly, the biggest challenge here won’t be the terraforming or even the survival of the bacteria — it’ll be the robotic probes. Gros notes that the technology necessary to send tiny probes to distant planets could be available within the next 50 years, but only if current efforts to send tiny probes to one of our local star systems pans out. “The Genesis project is quite unique in the sense that there will be no tangible benefit for humanity,” Gros told Space.com. “There is, however, no doubt that the project will be realizable both scientifically as well as economically in the not too far future.

“I find the thought of life flowering elsewhere in the universe very appealing.”