A Glass of Martian Red?

Mar 12, 2015 | Astrobiology | J. O'Malley-James

Wine has been with us, in one form or another, for 1000s of years, its origin stretching back to before written records began. When people settled new lands, they brought their vines with them, spreading viticulture across the world. If and when people settle on Mars (an idea that’s gradually moving away from the realms of fantasy and becoming a real possibility) they will almost certainly want to continue this trend. The problem is that unlike Australia and the Americas, Mars does not have climates that overlap with any of Earth’s grape growing regions.

At first glance, the idea of Martian wine looks set to fail at the “initial concept” stage. Mars is inhospitable to all the crops a settlement would need to grow. It is cold, dry, bombarded with harmful ultraviolet radiation and cosmic rays and, while there is carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere, it is present at such low pressures that plants would not be able to draw it in. However, with a bit of creative engineering, a sealed, climate-controlled greenhouse, or an artificially lit chamber protected from harmful radiation by a thick layer of soil, could solve these problems. Martian soil could even be used as a growing medium. However, while there has been some success growing plants in Martian soil simulants, there is evidence from the Phoenix Lander and the Curiosity rover that the soil on Mars contains toxic salts called perchlorates, which would not make this very suitable for plant growth. A possible solution could be to raise plants aeroponically, a process that requires no growing medium, but instead provides all the nutrients plants need by spraying their suspended roots with a nutrient-rich water solution. Then there is the question of what a low-gravity environment would do to plants that are used to full Earth gravity... Low gravity may not hamper plant growth, but what might it do to the taste of fruits or vegetables? These are just some of the factors that would need to be considered.

The problems associated with growing plants on other planets, along with their possible solutions, have been extensively researched and really require an article in their own right to fully explore. It seems that with some experimenting and a bit of technical engineering, Martian farming may not be the impossible goal it appears to be at first. For the purposes of exploring the idea of Martian wine, let’s assume that these crop-growing roadblocks can be overcome. At some future point, many decades from now, a human settlement on Mars could be well-established, populated by a small community sheltered beneath domes and happily producing the crops they need to support themselves. Could they, and would they want to, make wine?

Wine is not essential for sustaining a human population, but the challenge of making wine could be a perfect solution to the psychological downsides of living in what would be the most isolated of isolated communities. For example, in Norway, a country not even remotely connected to wine in the minds of many, in the small neighbourhood of Rodeløkka, Oslo, Olav and Betsy Heen and their neighbours have been growing grape vines against the south-facing walls of their houses. At almost 60° North, around 700 km from the edge of the Arctic Circle, they are producing about 30 bottles of wine a year. Not a lot, but enough for a small co-op and enough to help foster a strong sense of community. Working together to beat the odds on a similar project on Mars could have the same effects (especially considering that importing terrestrial wine would be a slow and expensive luxury for any future colonists).

While it is probably safe to say that future colonists would want to make wine, there is also the question of resources to consider. Could a community afford the time, energy, equipment and greenhouse space to grow grape vines? And producing the grapes is just the first step. Turning them into wine would require more equipment, energy and labour. If energy and space are at a premium, would it be justifiable to "waste" these on something non-essential? Justifying such a project could be a major obstacle, but assuming a colony remained on Mars for the long-term and grew over time, resource availability and management techniques may improve, making it easier to give Martian winemaking a go. Additionally, techniques such as aeroponics could help by minimising water and energy requirements. To produce small yields of grapes, enough to satisfy the requirements of a village-sized colony, a relatively small growing area would be needed. This could even be integrated into existing growing spaces. So, if grapes could be grown and wine produced, would it be palatable enough to be worth the effort?

There are so many factors that can influence the flavour of a wine that it’s practically impossible to predict what the final result will taste like without actually growing grapes in a particular place and turning them into wine. However, the level of environmental control required to grow grapes on Mars could help us to grow them under similar conditions on Earth today. A small, temperature-controlled greenhouse laboratory with tinted glass, or artificial lighting, to simulate Martian solar radiation, could help us produce the most extreme miniature vineyards on Earth. Today, some attempts are already under way to capture hints of the character of a Martian wine. Artist Carlos Monleon-Gendall has used Mars soil simulants and a miniature growth chamber to raise a grape vine under Mars-like conditions. Meanwhile in France, a joint effort between a winemaker and geochemists has led to the production of a sparkling wine with an essence of Martian meteorite. These efforts may give us a taste of what is possible, but a true taste of Martian wine is probably several decades away, at least. The Rodeløkka wine from Norway is described as “not a great wine, but ... potable”; a description that may well be echoed by future Martian vintners. A future bottle of Vin Martien probably won’t be the best wine in the world, but it might just end up being the best wine on Mars.

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