Why did SpaceX Dragon have 12 bottles of French wine and 320 grapevines in its cargo while returning to Earth?

Scientists hope that their investigation will lead to discovering how to produce wine in harsher environments, and more importantly, how to adapt agriculture to the climate of tomorrow


                            Why did SpaceX Dragon have 12 bottles of French wine and 320 grapevines in its cargo while returning to Earth?
SpaceX Dragon Cargo vehicle carried 12 bottles of wine (NASA TV/ Getty Images))

SpaceX’s upgraded Dragon cargo spacecraft splashed down at 8.26 pm EST west of Tampa, off the Florida coast on January 13, carrying more than 4,400 pounds of valuable scientific experiments and other cargo back to Earth, including 12 bottles of wine and 320 grapevine plants. This marks the return of the company’s 21st contracted cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA. 

The red wine and vine canes are part of Mission WISE (Vitis Vinum in Spatium Experimentia), an agricultural research program run by private European company Space Cargo Unlimited (SCU). SCU sent a dozen bottles of Bordeaux to the station in November 2019 and 320 vine plants in March 2020. “Mission WISE is the first comprehensive, privately led applied research program in space, aimed at reinventing the future of agriculture,” says the company. 

The wine spent a year aging in space. The bottles will not be opened until the end of February. SCU plans to open a bottle or two for tasting and then chemical testing. “Space Cargo Unlimited will investigate how space radiation and microgravity affect wine components during the aging process. This could yield results that help in understanding taste enhancement and food conservation,” the company noted while launching the mission in 2019.

The 320 vine plants of 40 mm each remained in space for six months. Two types of vines, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon canes, were stored on the International Space Station. Researchers will analyze the differences between returning canes with similar specimens that stayed on earth to “identify these mutations and to stabilize the adapted strains". 

Scientists will analyze the differences between returning canes with similar specimens that stayed on earth to identify these mutations and to stabilize the adapted strains (Getty Images)

“A reason for choosing wine as a proxy relies on the fact that like many cultures, wine is on the verge of being a victim of global warming. Grapes are extremely sensitive to change in temperature and season. In the 1970s, chaptalization, which stimulates malolactic fermentation, increases degrees of alcohol from 11 to 12. A decade later, chaptalization was no longer needed: climate was already getting warmer, producing sweeter grapes and Bordeaux wines containing 14 to 15 degrees of alcohol. Without action, in 40 years, Bordeaux wines as we know them will disappear,” states SCU.

With climate change, the company says agricultural products like grapes will need to adapt to harsher conditions. The experts hope that their investigation will lead to discovering how to produce wine in harsher environments, and more importantly, how to adapt agriculture to the climate of tomorrow. “The results from this experiment will advance knowledge on how vine plants can adapt to climate change on Earth, with high potential applications for the future of agriculture,” explain researchers. 

With NASA astronaut Victor Glover monitoring aboard the International Space Station, an upgraded SpaceX cargo Dragon spacecraft undocked from the International Docking Adapter on the station’s space-facing port of the Harmony module at 9.05 am EST on January 12.

Splashing down off the coast of Florida facilitates quick transportation of the science aboard the capsule to the agency’s Kennedy Space Center’s Space Station Processing Facility, delivering some science back into the hands of the researchers as soon as four to nine hours after splashdown.

The SpaceX Cargo Dragon vehicle is pictured docked to the Harmony module’s space-facing international docking adapter (NASA TV)

“The upgraded cargo Dragon capsule used for this mission contains double the powered locker availability of previous capsules, allowing for a significant increase in the research that can be carried back to Earth. Some scientists will get their research returned quickly, four to nine hours after splashdown,” explains NASA. 

What are other scientific investigations Dragon returned with?

Cardinal heart: Microgravity causes changes in the workload and shape of the human heart, and it is still unknown whether these changes could become permanent if a person lived more than a year in space. “Cardinal heart studies how changes in gravity affect cardiovascular cells at the cellular and tissue level using 3D-engineered heart tissues, a type of tissue chip. Results could provide a new understanding of heart problems on Earth, help identify new treatments, and support the development of screening measures to predict cardiovascular risk prior to spaceflight,” say experts.

Sextant navigation: Sextants have a small telescope-like optical sight to take precise angle measurements between pairs of stars from land or sea, enabling navigation without computer assistance. The sextant used in the sextant navigation experiment was returned to Earth. Sailors have navigated via sextants for centuries, and NASA’s Gemini missions conducted the first sextant sightings from a spacecraft. This investigation tested specific techniques for using a sextant for emergency navigation on spacecraft such as NASA’s Orion, which will carry humans on deep-space missions.

One of the studies could provide a new understanding of heart problems on Earth, and support the development of screening measures to predict cardiovascular risk before spaceflight (Getty Images)

Rodent research: At least 40% of astronauts experience vision impairment known as “Spaceflight-Associated Neuro-ocular Syndrome (SANS)" on long-duration spaceflights. These changes are a significant health risk that could also adversely impact mission success. The experiment studies the function of arteries, veins and lymphatic structures in the eye and changes in the retina of mice before and after spaceflight. The aim is to understand whether these changes impair visual function.

"This investigation could help scientists understand the mechanism behind vision impairment in space and support the development of effective prevention and treatments. A better understanding of SANS in astronauts and development of effective countermeasures could have applications in understanding, preventing and treating eye and vision problems associated with hypertension, diabetes, and other forms of retinal vascular dysfunction on Earth,” emphasizes NASA.

Bacterial Adhesion and Corrosion: Bacteria and other microorganisms have been shown to grow as biofilm communities in microgravity. This experiment identifies the bacterial genes used during biofilm growth, examines whether these biofilms can corrode stainless steel, and evaluates the effectiveness of a silver-based disinfectant. The investigation could provide insight into better ways to control and remove resistant biofilms, contributing to the success of future long-duration spaceflights.

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