Scientists have a radical idea to power Mars colonies - wind turbines

IE speaks to the co-author of a study that used simulations to demonstrate that there is enough wind on Mars to power settlers.
Paul Ratner
Representational image: Wind turbines powering settlers on Mars.
Representational image: Wind turbines powering settler colonies on Mars.

Yakup Zağlı/Interesting Engineering/iStock 

  • Scientists propose wind turbines to power human colonies on Mars.
  • Some areas on Mars have the right amount of wind to be the only source of power needed, as per the researchers.
  • The research team adapted a new approach using a climate model that was developed to study the Earth's climate.

While some scientists are still figuring out the best way to get humans to Mars, other researchers have concerned themselves with what would happen once we get there.

What would it take to build a sustainable colony of Mars residents? One major challenge they would face is where to get power. 

A recent study carried out by researchers from NASA, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of Washington-Seattle, says that one answer may lie in an energy source we are quite familiar with here on Earth — wind power.

The scientists propose that there may be enough wind on Mars that can be utilized by turbines to generate the electricity needed for future human colonies.  

Mars has enough wind

Scientists have a radical idea to power Mars colonies - wind turbines
Valles Marineris hemisphere on Mars.

While wind power is the leading non-hydro renewable source of energy on Earth, previous research suggested that the red planet has too thin of an atmosphere to create enough wind for our needs.

But the research team adapted a new approach by using a climate model that was developed to study the Earth's climate to simulate conditions on Mars. Doing this allowed them to learn more about the Martian wind's patterns and varying strengths.

They made specific Mars-related changes and adjusted factors like the amounts of solar radiation, levels of dust, and heat energy. They also accounted for the geographical domain to approximate the wind patterns on the Martian surface, generating several years' worth of data.

The researchers discovered that quite a few areas of Mars actually have winds strong enough to potentially assist with generating power, complementing solar arrays or nuclear power plants.

And some areas have the right amount of wind to be the only source of power needed. Out of 50 proposed landing sites, at least 40 could provide some wind power, they learned. 

Areas best for wind were found to be crater rims and volcanic highlands, as well as those around the poles. The researchers concluded that it would be possible to build large turbines, especially in the icy regions of Mars's north — Deuteronilus Mensae and Protonilus Mensae.

Interesting Engineering (IE) reached out to the study's co-author Dr. Victoria Hartwick, a research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, for more details on the study. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Interesting Engineering: What changes did you make in the climate model you employed to account for conditions on Mars?

Dr. Hartwick: One of the most interesting aspects of planetary science as a field, in my opinion, is that physics is the same regardless of the planet you study. This means that as long as we change the basic planetary characteristics (for example, size, gravity, atmospheric composition, and pressure), the models developed for Earth can be easily adapted to Mars, Venus, or other terrestrial bodies in our solar system and beyond. To study the winds on Mars, we used an advanced Mars global climate model adapted from the GFDL Earth GCM. We used two metrics to assess the available wind power. The first is called the wind power density. This value tells you the maximum available power (in W/m2) and is calculated using the model-derived wind speeds. We also calculated the power that could be extracted using a particular turbine, for example, the Enercon E33, a 330kW turbine that has been utilized at Mars analog sites in Antarctica. For this calculation, we used the industry-provided power curve, which tells you how much power is produced at each wind speed. To adapt the power curve from Earth to Mars, we had to account for the reduced air density and, therefore, the force behind winds. Very simply, a wind on Mars needs to be just under four times faster than a wind on Earth to make the same amount of power.

IE: What would be the advantage of building wind turbines on Mars versus other methods of power generation?

The ultimate goal when we consider power generation on Mars and particularly for human missions to Mars, is to have reliable, stable power generation. This likely will include power generated by multiple sources including solar, nuclear, and perhaps wind. In our study, we looked at the potential power available if a wind turbine was used on its own and in combination with a solar array. The real advantage of wind power is that, in many locations on Mars, it appears to compensate for reductions in solar power at night, in the winter hemisphere, and during dust storms. Most notably, wind power could be used for human landing sites away from the equator and closer to important subsurface water ice reservoirs in the midlatitudes and polar regions that are inaccessible using solar on its own.

IE: What is next for your research? How could it be tested?

There is so much more exciting work to do!

It will be critical to perform very high-resolution or mesoscale models of wind power at potential landing sites that can account for the influence of small-scale topography on winds. For example, from an engineering perspective, it will be interesting to see how wind turbines can be adapted to operate the most efficiently in Mars's extreme environment and also to minimize the turbine weight or modify the turbine design to make transport to Mars easier.

Read the full study "Assessment of wind energy resource potential for future human missions to Mars" in Nature Astronomy.

Study abstract: 

Energy sustainability and redundancy for surface habitats, life support systems, and scientific instrumentation represent one of the highest-priority issues for future crewed missions to Mars. However, power sources utilized for the current class of robotic missions to Mars may be potentially dangerous near human surface habitats (for example, nuclear) or lack stability on diurnal or seasonal timescales (for example, solar) that cannot be easily compensated for by power storage. Here, we evaluate the power potential for wind turbines as an alternative energy resource on 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. 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. While several regions show promising wind energy resource potential, other regions of scientific interest can be discarded based on the natural solar and wind energy potential alone. We demonstrate that wind energy compensates for diurnal and seasonal reductions in solar power, particularly in regions of scientific merit in the midlatitudes and during regional dust storms. Critically, proposed turbines stabilize power production when combined with solar arrays, increasing the percent time that power exceeds estimated mission requirements from ~40% for solar arrays alone to greater than 60–90% across a broad fraction of the Mars surface. We encourage additional study aimed at advancing wind turbine technology to operate efficiently under Mars conditions and to extract more power from Mars winds.

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