Aarhus Wind Tunnel Simulator II at Aarhus University in Denmark.
(Left) The wind turbine positioned in the wind tunnel, which is 2 meters in diameter. (right) Close-up
of the wind turbine, with the wind tunnel fan visible in the background.
Credit: Credit: C. Holstein-Rathlou, P.E. Thomas, J. Merrison, J.J. Iversen

Experimental demonstration of a small, light-weight wind turbine under simulated current Martian atmospheric conditions has shown that wind power on Mars is feasible.

The experiments were conducted in the Aarhus Wind Tunnel Simulator II at Aarhus University in Denmark in the fall of 2010.

Follow-up findings stemming from the work are spotlighted by Christina Holstein-Rathlou at Boston University’s Center for Space Physics at the Mars Workshop on Amazonian and Present Day Climate being held this week in Lakewood, Colorado. The Planetary Science Institute is holding the event.

Credit: Planetary Science Institute

Realistic conditions

The objective of the wind turbine investigations was to see how much power is produced under realistic Martian atmospheric conditions. For future possible missions to the polar regions of Mars standard power sources will be unfit for the task, Holstein-Rathlou and colleagues note. Solar cells will have limited or no sunlight for roughly half the year and the heat expunged by multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or similar devices, would be detrimental to any science performed in a polar region.

A different possible power source would be a wind turbine along with a battery for storing produced electricity, potentially in combination with solar cells.

Credit: Bryan Versteeg

Wind speeds

The concept of a Martian wind turbine has been explored theoretically in connection with human missions to the Red Planet. Along the same lines, a 100 kilowatt wind turbine was designed and tested in Antarctica – a general Mars analog site — by researchers from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.

However, these early concepts were large and heavy and would require substantial wind speeds to be functional. Also, these sizes and masses are unfeasible for the power supply for a science missions to Mars, which are generally much smaller and lightweight, Holstein-Rathlou and her colleagues report.

Typical wind speeds on Mars are in the roughly 2-10 meters per second range.

Output voltage

The wind tunnel experiment was run at 6 different wind speeds, selected based on the most common wind speeds at the May 2008 NASA Phoenix Mars landing site in the northern polar regions of Mars, the minimum wind speed needed to make the wind turbine rotate and the maximum wind speed the wings could withstand.

NASA Phoenix lander.
Credit: NASA/JPL

For each wind speed the output voltage was measured for 30-120 seconds.

“The optimal locations for this type of power production are areas where the Sun doesn’t always shine, but winds will blow, such as latitudes poleward of the polar circles,” the researchers explain.

Small lander

Prior to dispatching wind turbines to Mars, the research team adds there are a suite of studies still to be conducted. However, most designs, singular or part of a system, will be more efficient than this experiment, and thus should lead to power production in a range that is able to support some or all instrumentation on a small lander.

“For now, we can say for the first time and with certainty,” the team concludes, “that, yes, you can use wind power on Mars!”

One Response to “Blowing in the Wind: Power Production on Mars”

  • Elias says:

    At what pressure was the turbine tested? Mars’s atmosphere .6% that of Earth’s. I assumed wind turbines would have to be extremely sensitive to the few molecules and particles which would hit the blades/wings.

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