Ballantines, a Scotch whisky producer, has designed a glass so astronauts can enjoy a drink in orbit. The glass is an alternative to the usual solution for drinking in space–a bag with a straw. Not only is the glass a lot classier than glugging whisky from a plastic bag, it also gives the drinker something of the experience of sipping back down on Earth.
Without gravity, liquid forms a wobbly sphere and floats around. While you could gobble drops of water straight out of the air like floating M&Ms, that would risk stray water finding its way into places it shouldn’t be, like electronic devices. Instead, liquids come sealed, and you drink them with a straw. That’s fine for space piña coladas, but no so good for a classy space dram.
Ballantines’ glass is still sealed. The astronaut has to use a small mouthpiece, like a baby’s sippy-cup, but the Scotch can roll around inside the protective clear-plastic dome, releasing its volatile compounds into the air. Unfortunately, the astronauts nose won’t be enjoying those delicious aromas, because the cup is sealed, although you can sniff the mouthpiece to get an idea of what you’re missing. A shame, as most of our experience of flavor comes through the nose, but in space, where sinuses and other soft tissues swell in the absence of gravity (which usually pulls liquids toward the ground), taste and smell are already lessened.
Despite this rather glaring problem, the space glass is pretty neat. It uses capillary action to “pump” the liquid up a channel that spirals around the glass’s sides. Gravity usually overpowers capillary action on this scale (although trees still manage to use it to move their liquids around), but in zero-G, it’s strong enough to deliver the whisky to the mouthpiece. The designers weren’t even sure if it would work until they tested it in a zero-G simulator, the ZARM Drop Tower in Bremen, Germany. Here, as you can see in the video (skip the first three minutes), the glass is dropped from the tower and locked to cameras as it goes, so the movement can be studied.
This isn’t the fist time a beverage container has been designed for zero gravity. Back in 1985, Coca-Cola became the first soft drink to go into space, inside this amazingly intricate space can. The pressure of carbonization introduced a whole other set of problems, but maybe the neatest part is that it still looks just like a regular (if small and tube-laden) can of Coke.
Whisky in space might not be well-suited to the International Space Station–who wants a bunch of tipsy scientists floating around up there? But when space tourism takes off, these are exactly the kinds of things that will be important. Which is why both Suntory and Ardbeg have sent whisky into space, to see how it ages up there. Next up? Probably research into space hangovers.