With tickets on the shuttle almost being sold already, the world is making quite a fuss about colonising the red planet next door. The major motion picture, The Martian, has left us to believe that is plausible to survive on Mars and even grow some very “organic” potatoes, but would you really want to live there? Without wine? Certainly not. And seeing as it costs about $10 000 a pound to send something to space, “exporting” a bottle of wine to Mars isn’t exactly in my budget- especially after I have to pay $10 billion just to get there myself. After I’ve spent that amount of money, I am definitely going to need a glass of wine and if I’m on Mars, it seems I am going to have to make it myself.
Turns out, I’m not that far off thinking that it is possible to grow grapes and make wine on Mars. There has already been successful studies that indicate crops like tomatoes, radishes and peas can not only be grown in simulated Martian soil, but are also safe to eat. Martian “soil” or regolith contains all the macro- and micronutrients that are required to grow grapes. The amounts that are found in the substrate vary on different parts of the planet (as it does here on earth too), so general fertilisation will almost certainly be required. The substrate is unfortunately also very fine and of a dust like nature. This means that it probably has an inadequate water-holding capacity. Previous studies have added grass cuttings as an organic compound to help with the retention of water. Another possibility, of course, is the use of hydroponic systems where nutrients are fed to the roots of the plant through a soilless substrate, usually in the form of liquid fertilizer. As our neighbouring planet is further away from the sun than earth, it experiences much colder temperatures. Winter temperatures near the poles can drop as low as -125 ºC and a summer day near the equator won’t get much warmer than 20 ºC. So it’s a bit too cold for growing crops on the exposed exterior of the planet, but a simple greenhouse with a controlled atmosphere can easily regulate the temperatures and carbon dioxide levels that the plants are exposed to. Then there is the issue of water, that doesn’t really seem to be an issue anymore. In September of 2015 already NASA had announced that I had found evidence of flowing, liquid water on Mars. Although this water is believed to be salty, it may potentially be used for irrigating vines.
Now, at the moment it seems that all “growing operations” on Mars will have to take place in a controlled environment like a greenhouse. We can only hope that one day, future generations will have found ways to plant vineyards on the surface of the red planet and that they will be able to utilise the terroir of the Patera Mountains and other unique terrains found on the surface. Of course the soil will also contribute to the extra-terrestrial terroir and it is important to note that the current surface substrate contains a lot of heavy metals. These will be less desirable characteristics to pick up in your Martian blanc. Again, by the time we get there I’m sure we would have figured out a way to remove all the harmful metals from the soil or the filtered wine.
The production of wine on Mars will not only make the people living there a lot happier (seeing as there is wine to drink), but the social repercussions of such an activity can have an immense impact on a developing community or colony. By involving the community in every step of the process, from the soil preparation to the upkeep of vines to harvesting and ultimately the wine making, a sense of camaraderie is established among them. And at the end of the season they all get to sit down and enjoy the fruits (wines) of their labour together.
The likelihood of all of this happening in our lifetime, is rather slim. It probably won’t be another 100 years before we get to taste the first Martian vino. But I am excited for the generations to come and I hope that I can be a part of making this dream become a reality.