NASA scientists find wind power could power human missions

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Scientists think they’ve found a way to use turbines to power humans on Mars, another step forward if humans explore the planet in a day.

Turbines harnessing the winds of Mars could help power human exploration missions and open up parts of the planet to exploration where other types of energy, such as solar or nuclear, can’t fully function, scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center said in California, a research study published in the journal Nature.

“Wind power represents a valuable but so far neglected source of energy for future human missions to Mars,” the scientists write in their paper. NASA scientists were not immediately available for comment.

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Space agencies, scientists and entrepreneurs are pushing for humans to explore Mars. NASA’s Artemis mission to the moon is considered a springboard for exploring Mars over the next decade. China hopes to have humans on the planet by 2033. Elon Musk, one of the richest people in the world and CEO of SpaceX, hinted as much 2029.

But to power human exploration missions on Mars, multiple energy sources are needed, scientists note. Solar power has historically been used to sustain Mars missions, but is not very powerful on Martian nights or during dust storms that limit sunlight. Nuclear power is another likely source, but poses security risks if placed near human bases.

Wind power has long been considered unusable, largely because the Martian atmosphere is so thin, making the breeze weak. But Victoria Hartwick, a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center, used NASA climate models to refute previous assumptions and show that it could be a “distinct or supplemental source of energy” on the planet, the researchers wrote in the study.

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Hartwick and her teammates used the model to estimate wind speeds across the planet. They used topographic, dust and heat maps from data collected by the Mars Global Surveyor and Viking missions and simulated wind speeds over Mars, breaking down estimates by day and night and through different seasons and years.

Using this information, they calculated the maximum amount of energy they could generate in different parts of the planet, assuming they had a fully efficient wind turbine. They compared this to the previously estimated energy requirements to sustain six people on Mars for a 500-day mission.

Scientists found that wind energy could serve as a successful complement to solar energy, particularly during Martian nights and dust storms when the effects of solar energy wear off, or could replace it entirely in some parts of the planet.

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Based on the wind analysis, there are thirteen new sites on Mars that could become accessible to human exploration, study scientists note, and ten of the 50 target sites previously identified by scientists had the potential to use wind as a supplemental energy source.

It’s still not certain that humans will master the technology to explore Mars, and turbines would need to be built. They would need to be about 160 feet or 50 meters tall – about a medium-sized machine compared to those used on Earth. The height would be limited due to engineering and transportation challenges for larger machines, scientists said.

They could be particularly effective for catching planetary winds near Martian crater rims or volcanic slopes, scientists said, but more work is needed to overcome the challenges.

“We encourage additional studies aimed at advancing wind turbine technology,” they said, “to operate efficiently in Martian conditions and harvest more energy from the Martian winds.”

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