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How NASA's Work to Make Wine Better May Also Improve the World

NASA's work to make wine better and improve the world

When it comes to winemaking, you may not think of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

So imagine my surprise to learn that NASA not only has an interest in the wine industry, but is actively involved in fighting wine grape disease.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory teamed up with researchers at Cornell University and elsewhere to test whether one of NASA’s pioneering optical instruments could detect a grape disease called Grapevine Leafroll virus that causes billions of dollars in annual crop damage.

They used NASA’s next generation Airborne Visible/InfraRed Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS-NG) flown via airplane over 11,000 acres of vineyards in Lodi, California and artificial intelligence/machine learning to review the data. Lodi is a major producer of premium wine grapes.

The researchers found that the process was up to 87 percent accurate in detecting the disease and differentiating between infected and non-infected plants. Even more important, it could identify the disease in plants even before they showed symptoms of the virus, which could give winegrowers warning to intervene and treat the disease.

The researchers noted that this process may not only be an initial first step in more strategic and widespread agricultural disease monitoring and control, but also could eventually be used more broadly to address sustainability and reduce food insecurity.

Sounds like a win on both fronts: we end up with healthier grapes and a healthier planet.

Wine With Our Family recently had the opportunity to chat with Fernando E. Romero Galvan, Doctoral candidate at Cornell and corresponding author, to learn more about this groundbreaking technology and how NASA’s work to make wine better may also improve the world.

Wine With Our Family: Why did your study focus on wine grapes?

Fernando E. Romero Galvan: My professor Katie Gold specializes in grape research and pathology. And the grape growers were very receptive. They were very willing to try this out and help their vineyards.

WWOF: Why would NASA take an interest in this? Isn’t it more involved in space?

FERG: NASA is interested in any application of its instruments to agriculture. The agency recently launched the NASA Acres Consortium, which applies satellite earth observation information to pressing agriculture and food security challenges. NASA encouraged us to apply [for funding for our study]. NASA wants its instruments and data sets to be used this way.

WWOF: What are the next steps?

FERG: We want to apply the technology to different geography. Water and soils are different. Do the models transfer? Also, aircraft can only fly for so long. So the second next step is to use a space-borne model.

NASA's work to make wine better and improve the world
An infected plant with symptoms of the virus

WWOF: What might these findings mean for the wine industry and wine consumers?

FERG: This disease affects the sugars in the leaves. The grape quality is vastly reduced and results in bad yields. In Lodi the rate of infection is worrisome. We may lose the availability of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

Plants can be infected for one to two years before showing symptoms, but the disease can still spread, like COVID-19, so it’s difficult to control it. Being able to detect and control the disease with remote sensing will increase supply and avoid losing these vines. If we can locate where the diseased plants are, winemakers can better manage their vineyards. It’s a powerful ally.

WWOF: Can this technology be applied to other agricultural products?

FERG: Yes! It can extend to other diseases. In Spain the same science is being used to detect pathogens in almonds, and in Florida, they’re using the same instruments to find infection in citrus trees. The technology is also being used in California and Arizona to manage water [to potentially benefit the entire food system].

Indirectly if we can tell where a plant disease is, we can predict where it will spread and reduce the use of pesticides, which helps the environment. We can manage the disease responsibly.

WWOF: Are there any challenges?

FERG: The main barrier is that these hyperspectral cameras are expensive, risky, and difficult to operate. If a drone crashes, it can damage the camera.

WWOF: What might the long-term effects of this work be?

FERG: Hopefully it will inspire a new science of the remote sensing of disease. This is in its infancy.

It could lead to global disease monitoring systems and hopefully reduce the effects of climate change.

We hope you enjoyed this interview with Fernando E. Romero Galvan about how NASA’s work to make wine better may also improve the world. We look forward to seeing more developments in this area and how this new technology is bearing fruit.

NASA logo courtesy of NASA. Photo of diseased plant courtesy of Fernando E. Romero Galvin.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

What do you think of this technology? Are there other agricultural issues that NASA should take a look at? Don’t hesitate to send us a message at

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