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New supplies for the space station include whiskey

David Dickinson, Correspondent
Aug 26, 2015, 0:40 UTC

Sen—An experiment arrived aboard the International Space Station yesterday that looks to solve a key mystery of chemistry. In the olden days, wine makers would place casks of sherry in the holds of ships anchored in port. The sherry would slosh about, and mix with the charred inner casks as the seas rocked the boats. Fast forward to 2015, and researchers are now looking to place alcoholic beverages on vessels in low Earth orbit.

The Canadian Space Agency’s Canadarm 2 captured the Japanese Space Agency’s HTV-5 Kounotori cargo vehicle yesterday, and berthed it to the nadir node of the Harmony module of the International Space Station. The 6,000+ kg (13,200 lbs.) of cargo on the manifest included the Calorimetric Electron Telescope astrophysics payload, a mouse habitat experiment, and various other CubeSats and supplies. One of the more unique experiments on the list looks to study the ‘mellowing mechanism,’ and how alcoholic spirits age in zero gravity.

Suntory Global Innovation Center based in Japan conceived the two year experiment. Though distillers have known that mellowing happens over time now for centuries, chemists still do not completely understand the exact chemical mechanism that allows it to occur.

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Whiskey aging the traditional way here on Earth. Image credit: Dave Dickinson/F & R Distilling 

Ardbeg, which has its distillery on the Scottish island of Islay, has also previously sent whisky to the ISS to study the same phenomenon. The Ardbeg sample returned aboard a Soyuz spacecraft with ISS crewmembers in 2014. Currently, only Soyuz and SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft have ‘downmass’ return capability from the ISS.

“Although researchers have taken a variety of scientific approaches to elucidating the underlying mechanism, we still do not have a full picture of how this (the mellowing process) occurs,” Suntory said in a recent press release.

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Video of Japan's HTV-5 cargo ship arriving at the space station

This batch of 80 proof (40 per cent ethanol) spirits will remain in a ‘convection-free state’ aboard the JAXA Kibo module, for return a year later for Group 1, and two years later for Group s. And no, ISS crewmembers won’t be drinking the samples. Researchers will instead subject the samples to laboratory tests once they return to Earth.

Such studies highlight the commercial applications possible in zero-g aboard the station.

Will orbital barges aging casks of whiskey one day ply the skies overhead? Now, we’d raise a glass and say kanpai (cheers) to that!