NASA says winds could power human missions to Mars

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Scientists believe they have found a way to power humans on Mars using turbines, another step forward that one day humans can explore the planet.

Scientists from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California said turbines that harness Martian winds could help power human exploration missions, opening up parts of the planet to discovery where other types of energy, such as solar or nuclear, cannot fully operate. Research study published in the journal Nature.

“Wind power represents a valuable but previously excluded energy resource for future human missions to Mars,” the scientists wrote in their paper. NASA scientists could not be reached for comment.

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Space agencies, scientists and businessmen are calling for humans to explore Mars. NASA’s Artemis mission to the moon serves as a jumping off point for Mars exploration in the next decade or so. China hopes to put humans on the planet by 2033. Elon Musk, one of the world’s richest people and CEO of SpaceX, has hinted at doing so by 2029.

But scientists note that activating human exploration missions on Mars will require multiple energy sources. Solar energy has been used in the past to support Mars missions, but it’s not very strong during Martian nights or during dust storms that limit sunlight. Nuclear power is another potential source, but it comes with safety risks if it is placed near human bases.

Wind power has long been thought to be largely unusable because Mars’ atmosphere is so thin, making for weak breezes. But Victoria Hartwick, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA Ames Research Center, used NASA climate models to challenge previous assumptions and show that they could be a “stand-alone or complementary” source of energy on the planet, the study authors wrote.

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Hartwick and her colleagues 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, simulated wind speeds across Mars, and broke down the estimates by day and night, though with 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 fully efficient wind turbines. They compared that to the energy requirements previously estimated to keep six people on Mars for a mission lasting 500 sols.

Scientists have found that wind energy can serve as a successful supplement to solar energy, especially during Martian nights and dust storms when the influence of solar energy wanes, or completely replace it 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 open to human exploration, the study scientists note, and ten of the fifty target sites previously identified by scientists have the potential to use wind as a supplemental energy source.

It is still not certain that humans will master the technology for Mars exploration, and turbines will need to be built. It must be about 160 feet or 50 meters high – almost a medium-sized machine compared to that used on Earth. The scientists said the height would be limited by engineering and transportation challenges for the larger machines.

They can be particularly effective at catching planetary winds near the crater edges of Mars or the slopes of volcanoes, scientists said, but more work is needed to master the challenges.

They said, “We encourage additional study aimed at developing wind turbine technology, to operate efficiently under Martian conditions and to extract more energy from the Martian wind.”


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