Could Martian dust storms help astronauts keep the lights on?

(Inside Science) – Mars is known for its dust storms, which can cause problems with lander equipment and block the sun that powers solar panels. These violent storms, which can last for weeks, have already caused property damage and even killed NASA’s Opportunity rover. But they could also be dangerous for astronauts on the ground, who would depend on solar power for cleaning up oxygen, heat and water on future missions.

Vera Schorbach, professor of wind energy at the University of Applied Sciences Hamburg in Germany, was curious to see if wind turbines could harness the power of these storms, replacing solar panels on the Red Planet when needed.

“I asked myself ‘Why don’t they have a wind turbine if they have dust storms,” ​​said Schorbach, lead author of a study on the potential for wind power on Mars. recently published in the review Acta Astronautica.

She took data on wind speed and dust storms collected by NASA’s Viking 2 lander, which landed on Mars in 1976. She then performed a site assessment similar to how companies d wind power seek suitable areas to build turbines on Earth.

Schorbach was surprised to find that the wind speed was not always very high during dust storms. In fact, some of the highest wind speeds have occurred on Mars when there was no storm.

Also, because the atmosphere on Mars is so thin, the wind is mostly driven by the sun and it goes out overnight, when it might be needed most to fill the gaps in solar power.

To provide water cleaning, heating, oxygen production, and other services needed by a crew of five or six astronauts, you would need an average power of 80 kilowatts. But the thin atmosphere also provides another hitch in the possibilities of wind power. To deliver so much energy to Mars, you would need three turbines with a rotor diameter of 50 meters – a size that is not achievable.

“You would need a large crane to assemble it, you would need large structures to transport it,” Schorbach said. If you used rotors 10 meters in diameter, you would need 142 turbines. “It was a bit disappointing because it would really take a lot of turbines,” she continued. “No spaceship wants to carry this.”

But the idea remains promising, she says. While the traditional ground-based turbines used on Earth may not work on Mars, some researchers are currently working on plans to airborne wind systems which essentially behave like kites. And, promisingly, Mars has faster wind speeds at higher altitudes.

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