The commercialization of space isn’t just about what new sensors we can put into orbit on cheaper and smaller satellites — it’s also about studying and leveraging the advantages of a microgravity environment on manufacturing and production. European startup Space Cargo Unlimited is focused on turning microgravity benefits into viable commercial ventures on Earth, and it just announced it will be working with global vine nursery company Mercier on applying the benefits of space to create more-hardy wine grape vines.
Space Cargo Unlimited has already done some work on how microgravity can impact wine — it shipped a crate of red wine to the International Space Station in 2019, and then returned it to Earth last year after a full 12 months aging aboard the station in near zero-G. Now, the startup has formed a subsidiary dedicated to in-space biotech specifically, Space Biology Unlimited, and it’s going to be the one working with Mercier on figuring out how to grow new grape vine varietals that are more resistant to changes in the climates in which they grown.
In addition to the case of Bordeaux that Space Cargo Unlimited sent up, the company also sent 320 vine canes (basically the core structure of a vine that results from the maturation of the juvenile shoot), and it just recently received those back on SpaceX’s cargo return trip from the ISS. Those canes, half from Cabernet grapes and half from Cabernet Sauvignon, have shown “unprecedented biological changes” according to Mercier CEO Guillaume Mercier in a statement. They’ll now be cloned and studied to see if they provide any advantages in terms of potential for growth on “our fast-warming planet,” he added.
Everything from battery production, to additive manufacturing, to basic chemical and medical manufacturing has been tested in a microgravity environment. Microgravity can reduce the physical strain of gravity, most obviously, to make production of complex structures possible where it wouldn’t be on Earth. The unique environment, which also includes a much different radiation profile, also leads to unexpected variances in the growth and development of organic structures that, while they don’t occur naturally on Earth, can sometimes be replicated to achieve useful outcomes.
The effects of microgravity have been studied using the ISS for years, but more affordable and frequent access to space has made it a much more promising commercial avenue for many companies and startups that previously wouldn’t have been able to justify the associated costs or time frames around the work. Space Cargo Unlimited is one of the companies that looks well-positioned to capitalize on this growing trend.