Realistically, it takes a few days for a manned mission to reach the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had to wait 109 hours before they could hop out of the Eagle and stretch their legs on the lunar surface. Luckily for modern astronauts who are braving the lengthy journey, there might just be a cold sip of beer waiting for them when they get there.
A team of UC San Diego engineering students calling themselves “Original Gravity” are designing an experiment to test whether or not yeast can survive in the harsh atmosphere of the moon – and they intend to do it by brewing a batch of “lunar beer” (for science!).
The pioneering project is one of 25 final entries in the Lab2Moon competition hosted by Google Lunar XPrize participant, TeamIndus – a privately funded Indian space team. If the San Diego students can clinch the final prize in March, then on December 28, 2017, they’ll get to boldly brew where no one has brewed before.
“The idea started out with a few laughs amongst a group of friends,” said Neeki Ashari, the team’s PR and operations lead. “We all appreciate the craft of beer, and some of us own our own homebrewing kits. When we heard that there was an opportunity to design an experiment that would go up on India’s moonlander, we thought we could combine our hobby with the competition by focusing on the viability of yeast in outer space.”
Of course, whipping up a batch of space beer is not without its complications. Normally, the beer-brewing process starts with submerging grains in heated water to extract fermentable sugars. This sweet liquid is then boiled, along with some hops for flavor and aroma. Next, the unfermented beer (called wort) is cooled and transferred to a fermenter where yeast is added to work its beer-making magic. Finally, the finished product is bottled or kegged.
So how can all of this be done in outer space? With ingenuity and creativity (and by cutting a few corners, of course). For their “moonshine,” the team is planning to skip straight to the fermentation stage. After preparing the wort, they’ll place it in a specially designed vessel, no bigger than a soda can, comprised of three separate compartments. The middle compartment will house the yeast, while the wort goes at the top.
“When the rover lands on the moon with our experiment, a valve will open between the two compartments, allowing the two to mix,” explains Srivaths Kaylan, mechanical lead for the team. “When the yeast has done its job, a second valve opens and the yeast[s] sink to the bottom and separate from the now fermented beer.” Voilà! Space Beer!
One of the biggest challenges for the team is dealing with the moon’s unforgiving weather. The lunar landscape is prone to extreme temperature fluctuations (14 – 113° F), which can be a problem for the health of the yeast. On top of that, the conditions don’t allow for outgassing, which means that the CO2 that builds up during fermentation can’t be released. “To avoid this issue, we had to calculate the ideal ratio of fluid to canister volume, such that the beer would incorporate the perfect amount of carbonation without the possibility of exploding,” says Ashari.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking: why bother sending a high-tech hip flask 238,900 miles into space just so you can remotely brew 15 milliliters of porter that you’ll never get to drink?
The real goal for the Original Gravity team is to test whether yeast can survive and grow in the unforgiving lunar atmosphere. “This isn’’t just about brewing beer, it’s about serving a scientific purpose as well,” explains Ashari. “Yeast is amongst one of the most prevalent microorganisms. We find it in our foods, beverages, pharmaceuticals, etc. It is a component people have become reliant on for survival.”
This project will be the first-ever microbiological experiment to be carried out on the moon and could serve as a catalyst for other, similar projects in the future. Brewing a beer on the moon could be one small step towards humanity’s ultimate goal of colonizing space. That’s some serious cred for these homebrewers.