A crewed expedition to Mars has been a century-long subject of fascination and, for now, fantasy. The basic engineering challenges are enormous: To start with, there’s the question of where to find a viable and steady source of energy that would be required for any human mission to Mars. The answer to that question may be blowing in the Martian wind, according to a new study.
Solar and nuclear energy have traditionally powered robotic missions. But nighttime shutdowns and dust storms disrupt solar energy generation, and waste disposal is a huge concern for nuclear power.
Wind power has been explored in the past, but with the atmospheric density of Mars being 1% that of Earth, much larger turbine blades would be needed to generate sufficient energy. In addition, the Viking and InSight lander instruments recorded low wind readings, although these sites were, by design, quiet wind zones. Wind was dismissed as inviable.
Now, a study published in Nature Astronomy has suggested that wind energy could, indeed, be harnessed to power human settlements on Mars.
“We were excited to find that there are many locations across the planet where winds are strong enough to provide a really stable power resource” and compensate for a shortfall in solar power using wind turbines, said Victoria Hartwick, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at NASA Ames Research Center. The team tailored a climate model designed for Earth to simulate Martian climatic conditions and assess winds on the Red Planet.
Tools for the Job
A new NASA Ames Mars global climate model factors in not only standard fluid flow but also elements specific to Mars, such as how the atmosphere interacts with the surface.
The new model uses topographic, heat storage, and albedo and dust maps from prior Mars observations. It simulates wind patterns and strength across the entire surface and their variation with time of day and season, and during years with and without dust storms.
The researchers measured a potential turbine’s maximum and actual power production and compared the results with the maximum available solar power across seasons, time of day, and dust activity, noting where power levels exceeded theoretical power requirements for a crewed mission to Mars.
The Answer, My Friend, Is Blowin’ in the Wind
The model revealed that wind power on the Martian surface peaked in the midlatitudes and poles during each hemisphere’s winter; at night, dawn, and dusk; and during dust storms that occluded sunlight. Slope winds, similar to thermally driven mountain and valley breezes on Earth, are particularly strong on Mars along crater rims and down volcanic highlands. Akin to Earth’s land and sea breezes, the temperature contrast at the winter poles creates powerful polar vortices. These sites had the highest wind power potential.
The researchers identified 13 new regions with good wind resource potential and confirmed that 10 prospective landing sites identified by NASA have sufficient wind for energy generation. “Some regions—for example, in the midlatitudes and poles with fascinating geologic histories and close to subsurface water ice deposits that could be valuable resources for a human mission—that had been previously dismissed on the basis of estimated solar power availability are back on the table,” Hartwick said.
“This is a really interesting and useful first step along the way [to human exploration on Mars],” said Bruce Banerdt, a planetary geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and principal investigator of the InSight mission who wasn’t involved in the research.
Don Banfield, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames who also was not part of the study, agreed. “This work has not been done before. They did a nice job of looking at how wind power resources might be distributed on Mars.”
The next step, Hartwick said, would be to use an extremely high resolution weather model and zoom in on those regions to get a better sense of small-scale wind variations in response to the local topography and other unique atmospheric changes.
“They’ve used a very well established model for analyzing Martian winds,” Banerdt said. But “we still have only limited ground truth on Mars” to directly compare the data to, he added.
NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory’s Lucas Harris agreed that given the limited direct observations available on Martian winds, “the validation of the model is similarly limited,” adding, “I don’t think that’s going to be a showstopper, though. This is neat stuff.”
A Tale of Turbines
“It is unlikely that we’ll see big wind turbines on Mars in the near future, unless SpaceX’s Starship proves successful,” said Banfield, who was part of an effort to develop a turbine to sustain a polar mission on Mars. “But I do hope that we’ll develop small ones.”
Isaac Smith at York University in Toronto, who was part of that same effort, also pointed out the logistical constraints and costs of transporting equipment to the Red Planet but added, “Wind energy gives us another tool to use on Mars, that we might not have otherwise.”
“This paper is a fantastic resource for those planning human or robotic Mars missions and demonstrates that wind energy should not be discounted,” said Claire Newman, a dust storm expert at Aeolis Research who has worked on the InSight, Curiosity, and Perseverance missions. “I would love to see Mars wind energy explored further.”
—Alakananda Dasgupta (@AlakanandaDasg1), Science Writer