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Space-aged wine and your next favorite science binge-watch

by Melissa Gilden
February 7, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 5


Santé at 100 km

An image of host David Pogue in front of a periodic table.
Credit: WGBH Educational Foundation
Binge-watch: A new series to up your chemistry game.

For years, agricultural scientists have been sending their shrubs up to the stars in the name of research. Aboard the International Space Station (ISS), scientists have marveled at the effect of microgravity on agricultural pest control, barley malting (sponsored by Budweiser), and the ability to turn bottom-up seed germination on its head. What they haven’t done, until now, is aged a fine bottle of bordeaux.

In November 2019, start-up Space Cargo Unlimited, which charters round-trip spacecraft to low Earth orbit, teamed up with SpaceX to send 12 bottles of bordeaux and 320 canes—mature snippets of grapevines—of cabernet sauvignon and merlot up to the ISS for approximately 1 year. Their primary project, Mission WISE, as they call it, was to study the differences between the space canes and their Earth-bound contemporaries to identify any mutations that arose to stabilize the plant in orbit. The scientists anticipate that plants that spend time in space may become more resilient to environmental stressors, which may have implications for climate change–focused agricultural research.

Another mission objective is for Bordeaux, France–based wine experts to evaluate the wine aged 1 year in space. Without gravity, there’s no convection, which is important in aging wine in barrels here on Earth. Convection—the effect caused by a warmer gas or liquid rising to the top, while a cooler one sinks down to the bottom—requires a gravitational field. The bottles of bordeaux that were aboard the ISS will give the wine scientists, or winentists, as the Newscripts gang calls them, more information on the effect of convection on wine aging.

Previous experiments carried out aboard the ISS have shown that many chemical reactions move more slowly up there than they do down here, most notably in the case of the molecular binding of polyphenols, compounds commonly found in red wine. The lack of gravity increases the probability that newly combined molecules will result from conditions that are simply impossible on Earth, explains Maryse Camelan, a communications strategist for Space Cargo. The celestial vintage, which touched down in the Gulf of Mexico on Jan. 11, was immediately taken to Bordeaux for testing. Space Cargo plans to dedicate more than a year of research on the canes alone.

The start-up has more missions in the works, focusing first on comparing red wine varieties and then launching into white wine. But what this Newscriptster really cares about is the private wine tasting in Bordeaux at the end of February. She’ll be here waiting by the phone for her invite.


Chemistry for binge-watching

An illustration of a wine bottle with rocket engines blasting off into space, with white clouds below it and a moon in the background.
Credit: Shutterstock/Yang H. Ku/C&EN
Into orbit: Nixing gravity while aging wine could provide new compounds and flavors.

Many of us, scientists and civilians alike, have exhausted our lists of things to watch as most public indoor activities remain closed and distanced outdoor activities succumb to the cold. Now, there’s a new show that’s all about chemistry. Almost 9 years ago, PBS released a popular Nova episode called Hunting the Elements about the periodic table. PBS is picking up from where it left off with Beyond the Elements, a three-part Nova special that explores the molecules that fuel the reactions, industrial processes, and biology that make up our way of life. It began airing on PBS on Feb. 3.

Malika Jeffries-EL, a chemistry professor at Boston University, is one of the scientists featured in the second episode, titled “Indestructible.” Jeffries-EL, who studies polymers, demonstrates plastic-forming reactions by whipping up thermoset plastic from phenol and formaldehyde in the lab.

“As a girl, I watched Nova and it certainly fueled an interest in science,” she tells Newscripts. “I can also recall the rare times I ever saw a scientist on TV who wasn’t white or male.” Being in the series, Jeffries-EL says, gave her the chance “to be that person who inspires others and helps them realize that there is a place for them in science too.”

Both grown-up chemists and budding scientists are likely to enjoy how the show communicates the importance of chemistry. As host David Pogue says at the end of the “Indestructible” episode: “The only thing between me and certain death is chemistry.”

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