TBILISI, Georgia — Georgia promotes itself as the world’s birthplace of wine. So it seems only natural that the country is trying to figure out what varietal might be sipped one day on Mars.
That is the thinking behind the IX Millennium project, which is seeking to develop grapevines fit for the possible Red Planet agriculture pods. The team also wants to put a Georgian stamp on one of the more unusual research fronts related to a dreamed-of Mars colony.
But it’s definitely not without merits.
The research may help answer questions about radiation, dust and other challenges for life-sustaining agriculture on Mars. And after all, who wouldn’t want a glass of Martian wine to welcome a new year (687 Earth days long) on a new planet?
“If we’re going to live on Mars one day, Georgia needs to contribute. Our ancestors brought wine to Earth, so we can do the same to Mars,” said Nikoloz Doborjginidze, founder of Georgia’s Space Research Agency and an adviser to the Ministry of Education and Science, which is part of the wine project.
A consortium of entrepreneurs and academics also are involved in IX Millennium, which refers to the tradition of viticulture in Georgia going back more than 8,000 years in this land between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea. Endless debates are engaged on wine’s origins, but Georgia makes as credible a claim as any.
The quest for a Martian-friendly grape (which now looks as if it could be a white) began in 2016 when entrepreneur Elon Musk boasted that his company SpaceX could launch its first manned mission to Mars in 2024, a decade sooner than NASA’s most optimistic timetable.
That inspired the Georgian team to begin looking at grapes for space. But others, too, are trying to figure out what might grow in protected gardens on Mars.
Scientists in Peru have been successfully growing potatoes in a mock Martian environment, part of a slew of experiments run in conjunction with NASA on extraterrestrial agriculture. The U.S. space agency already has salad crops aboard the International Space Station and will soon branch out into tomatoes and spicy peppers.
So far, food in space has been developed mostly with nutrition and calories in mind, said Ralph Fritsche, NASA’s food production project manager. This means grapes have not made the NASA menu. But that does not mean NASA is a buzzkill.
“Right now, we’re worried about keeping the crews healthy but also happy. They have to be able to survive, so maybe there’s a pathway for [alcohol] in the future,” Fritsche said.
The company that makes Budweiser is already on the case. In 2017, it sent an experimental batch of barley seeds into space, part of its research into microgravity beer for places such as Mars.
In Georgia, the team is about to embark on experiments on grape varieties and Mars-like soil.
Early this year, the group hopes to establish the country’s first vertical-farming lab inside a hotel in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. A company called Space Farms plans floor-to-ceiling pods with grapes next to strawberries and arugula — plants with heaps of vitamins and whose seeds could eventually be taken on long space journeys.
Vertical farming — using limited space, minimal human support and hydroponic lights — could help determine which grapes will thrive in the biodome colonies envisioned for Mars.
Next, Tbilisi’s Business Technology University, or BTU, plans to test various soils before simulating a Martian environment in a laboratory, complete with subzero temperatures, high carbon monoxide levels and air pressure that is equivalent to 20,000 feet altitude on Earth.
Knowing what Martian happy hour will taste like will take some time, though. The project doesn’t expect to know which Georgian grapevines will be most suitable for Mars until at least 2022.
Yet clues are already emerging.
Contrary to common understanding — at least among those in former Soviet republics — red wine does not seem the best bet. Georgian scientists have a hunch that white grapes will fare better on Mars.
“Whites tend to be more resistant to viruses,” said Levan Ujmajuridze, director of the country’s vineyard laboratory, holding up a glass of white Georgian wine to admire the color against the sun’s low rays. “So I’d imagine they’ll do well against radiation, too. Their skin could reflect it.”
Ujmajuridze is in the gardens of Saguramo, just north of Tbilisi, where the government conducts experiments in its vast outdoor grape library, where nearly all of Georgia’s 500 varieties have been planted on trellises in organized rows.
A smile spreads across his face when he imagines drinking Georgian wine on Mars. “Soon we’ll begin testing our grapes for radiation,” he said. “We’d never had the need before.”
One candidate for Mars is rkatsiteli, a robust and common wine high in acidity with hints of pineapple and fennel and a fiery kick.
Students at BTU will soon subject the grapes, which are characterized by a reddish splotch near the stem, to high levels of radiation. They believe rkatsiteli’s sturdy skin should survive the dust storms on Mars, whose particles could make their way into the man-made laboratories.
White grapes’ potential came as a surprise to the Georgian consortium, who have not forgotten the advice given by Soviet officials in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster: Drink red wine or vodka.
American researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine later concluded the Soviets could have been onto something. They found that red wine contains resveratrol, a natural antioxidant that can protect cells from radiation damage.
When Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, Georgian vineyards supplied much of the vast nation. But with Communist-driven cultivation restrictions, the number of grape varieties shrank dramatically to fewer than 20.
Now, the government is restoring its vast gene pool of grapes. Wines not made in more than a century are being revived by Ujmajuridze’s team.
“So grapes from our past could be part of our future,” said Ana Lomtadze, project manager for IX Millennium. “Our final goal is to colonize Mars, but our work could also be helpful for us back on Earth.”
In 2017, a study showed shards of clay vessels had been found in central Georgia that contained wine residue from eight millennia ago.
“This story shows why we deserve to bring wine to Mars,” said David Lordkipanidze, director of the Georgian National Museum, where the Neolithic pot takes center stage alongside a bronze toastmaster and silver belt depicting a wine-guzzling banquet.
Whatever happens, part of Georgia will always be in the cosmos.
In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts, carrying the famous “golden record” containing sounds and messages from Earth. Among the 27 pieces of music were Mozart, Chuck Berry — and a Georgian choral folk song called “Chakrulo.”
At the time, Moscow furiously objected, insisting NASA should include a Russian song. But the soaring sounds of the Georgian choir prevailed.
“This allowed Georgia to start thinking in terms of firsts in space,” said Ramaz Bluashvili, a TV space presenter and director, and son of one of the “Chakrulo” singers.
“Scientists need inspiration, and with inspiration, you need wine. Once you take wine to Mars, everyone will follow.”