An analysis of the wind energy available on Mars finds that one well-placed turbine could enable a group of six people to live near the poles all year round
19 December 2022
Solar energy might be sufficient for investigating Mars near the equator, but to live nearer the poles all year round, other power sources are needed. In combination with solar power, well-placed wind turbines could supply enough energy for a group of six people to live and work on Mars all year round, without the radiation risks associated with nuclear energy, says Victoria Hartwick at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.
“It’s really exciting that by combining potential wind power with other sources of energy, we open up large parts of the planet to exploration and to these really scientifically interesting zones that the [scientific] community may have previously discredited because of energy requirements,” she says.
Martian winds have about 99 per cent less force compared with the winds of the same speed on Earth due to the planet’s thin atmosphere. Studies of Martian winds since the 1970s have either concentrated on landing zones – which must be low-wind for safe landings – or on single assessments of mountainous ridges. These don’t provide the full picture of a region’s wind potential, which can vary considerably over a day, season and year, says Hartwick.
She and her colleagues adapted a global climate model that was originally designed for Earth so that it looked at Mars. They used detailed information about Mars, such as its precise landscape, heat energy, dust levels and solar radiation in different regions, taken from maps made by the Mars Global Surveyor and Viking missions. Armed with this information, the model simulated the various wind speeds across the planet, day and night, across seasons and even years – as storms vary from year to year.
For each unit area on Mars, the researchers calculated the maximum power that could be produced using a 100 per cent efficient wind turbine. They also calculated the theoretical power returns from four commercial turbines of various sizes currently used on Earth. Then they compared this with the estimated energy requirements for sustaining six people on Mars for a mission lasting 500 Martian days, as determined in previous studies.
The researchers found that wind energy could not only complement solar energy – especially at night and during heavy dust storms that block out sunlight – but replace it entirely in some locations, says Hartwick.
“This was one of the incredibly surprising results of our study, [as] it was not what we expected when we first looked at it,” she says.
Wind power showed the strongest potential along Martian crater rims and the volcanic highlands. Winds blowing off ice deposits during winter in the northern hemisphere were like a “sea breeze”, which could provide some of the necessary energy in research-worthy sites of exploration, she says.
“When we talk about human missions to Mars, we want stable energy resources, in the most interesting scientific locations,” she says. “With wind power in concert with solar, some really interesting portions are accessible.”
The practicalities of building wind turbines on Mars need further investigation, she says. But lightweight, low-volume balloon turbines and the use of Martian materials on site could be realistic options to avoid shipping massive equipment across the solar system. “This is a major avenue of additional research that we really encourage,” says Hartwick. “We’re excited to see what the engineering community comes up with.”
Journal reference: Nature Astronomy, DOI: 10.1038/s41550-022-01851-4
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