Mars might not be the first place you’d think of when you think of where wind power might come in handy. It has dust storms on a similar scale to anything Earth can muster, and they are responsible for the death of many technologies we have sent to the Red Planet over the years. However, the power of these storms is only enough to lift some dust particles into the air, which eventually coat the solar panels of this technology. Scientists have thought that it doesn’t really have enough momentum to be useful for anything. However, a new paper challenges this assumption and shows that wind power could be useful on Mars.
However, there are a few caveats to this statement. One is that this research is based on climate models rather than actual wind data at multiple locations. Another is that it would potentially only be useful in certain locations, although those locations are some of the most scientifically fascinating locations anyway.
Scientific interest is one of the main drivers of efforts to explore Mars. The tantalizing prospect of potentially finding extinct (or surviving) life on one of our sister planets was the dream of space explorers’ births. Most of these explorers want to push for a human mission to do as much science as possible in the shortest amount of time – robots just aren’t as efficient as human explorers.
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But to have a human mission, there must be enough power in the mission space to provide life support and meet the mission’s basic needs. In most of the scientific literature, these needs are met by two energy sources – nuclear and solar.
Solar power is one of the most common sources of energy on Mars, which is why so many missions fall victim to the inevitable dust that clogs up their solar panels. But it has some distinct drawbacks. It is only available for a certain percentage of the day, and those percentages vary by location and time of the Martian year. Sending the necessary energy storage capacity to Mars to support a manned mission from solar power alone is prohibitively expensive, so an alternative source of base power is required.
Nuclear fills that gap nicely on the Red Planet and on Earth. However, while humanity has operated small-scale nuclear reactors on other planets in the past, having one large enough to provide basic power for a crewed mission is another matter entirely. There are many risks in operating one, especially in conditions like the one on the surface of Mars, let alone the unknowns of how to land on its surface in the first place.
Therefore, an alternative primary energy source would be useful. The wind has largely been discounted due to the general impression that the Martian atmosphere is too insufficient to provide the necessary power. But research into how to make the most of wind power here on Earth has led to some technological improvements that could make it a more viable energy source on Mars.
First, it would be useful to understand how much energy the wind provides on Mars. To do so, researchers from NASA, UC Boulder and elsewhere turned to the Mars Global Climate Model (GCM). The GCM predicts wind speeds on the surface of Mars as well as the density of that wind. From there, the researchers could calculate the power it provides, on average, at least.
They also make several interesting points to consider when considering wind farms on Mars. First – wind speeds increase dramatically even 50 meters above the ground on Mars. So if any future mission plans to use wind power, it’s better to build tall turbines rather than closer to the ground, even if that requires overcoming some additional engineering challenges.
Another is that the wind provides a good foil for solar power on the Red Planet. For example, solar radiation decreases significantly during dust storms, but wind energy increases during these times. Also, the longer nights during the Red Planet winter force wind power to overtake solar as a potential energy source.
In particular, this second point applies to mid- to polar latitudes, where some of the most interesting scientific sites (ie, those containing water) are located. So for the bases there, a combination of solar and wind is the optimal safe power mix, without the need for potentially dangerous nuclear.
Using an underappreciated resource like the wind on Mars can turn heads in the space exploration community. But humanity will need every ounce of power it can get from the least possible weight if it really intends to send humans to Mars. This study is another step toward understanding how best to do this.
Hartwick et al. – Assessment of wind power potential for future human missions to Mars
UT – Without water and life, the geology on Mars is wind driven
UT – Dust devils and strong winds produce the continuous haze on Mars
UT – Telltale of Phoenix tells all about the winds and weather on Mars
Wind farm on Earth.
Credit – Public domain images from Pixabay
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