Results of a new study on the viability of turbines as an energy source for future Mars missions suggest that wind power could become an important basis for energy production on the Red Planet, assuming humans can successfully land there in the coming decades.
Scientists have generally not considered wind power as a key power source for Mars missions at all, unlike solar and nuclear power, because Martian winds are extremely weak. Now, a team led by Victoria Hartwick, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Ames Research Center, has used global Martian climate models to show that, contrary to past assumptions, “wind power represents a stable, sustained energy resource across large portions of the Mars surface.”
“Using a state-of-the-art Mars global climate model, we analyze the total planetary Martian wind potential and calculate its spatial and temporal variability,” Hartwick and her colleagues said in the study. “We find that wind speeds at some proposed landing sites are sufficiently fast to provide a stand-alone or complementary energy source to solar or nuclear power.”
Any human mission to Mars will require multiple reliable power sources to support the astronauts and their operations, but all options for extraterrestrial power generation have their pros and cons. Nuclear power is widely seen as a key enabler of manned missions to Mars, but placing nuclear devices near human habitation can pose risks. Solar power has been used on many past rovers, but this form of power diminishes during the Martian night and during dust storms that obscure the Sun’s light.
Additionally, many of the most promising human landing sites on Mars are located at high latitudes in and around the poles, where liquid water could potentially be extracted from extraterrestrial ice. However, these areas also experience significant fluctuations in the availability of solar energy, creating a need for a secondary energy source.
Because the Martian atmosphere is very thin, its density is only 1% that of Earth’s atmosphere, and the Martian winds are quite weak everywhere. Still, the researchers found that several attractive locations could theoretically use wind as their sole source of energy and that combining solar and wind power would unlock locations across vast swaths of the planet, including the icy places at the poles.
So far, the team of scientists has identified several areas that would be particularly favorable for wind energy, including in the icy northern regions of Deuteronilus Mensae and Protonilus Mensae. The researchers plan to install 50-meter-tall turbines to capture stronger winds in these areas, allowing astronauts to survive in the alien world’s strange glacial terrain.
Of course, wind energy has its drawbacks, including the bulky heft of turbines. But in general, the results of the new study suggest that wind energy can expand the possibilities of exploring the Martian landscape and play a key role as an autonomous or backup energy source in humanity’s first interplanetary adventure.