These Wind Turbines Could Power Future Martian Weather Stations

The Planetary Turbine Anemometer is a new turbine concept submitted to NASA.

Illustration of the Planetary Turbine Anemometer (PTA) concept on the Mars’ North polar ice cap. (Image courtesy of Don Banfield/Christ Eckert)

Illustration of the Planetary Turbine Anemometer (PTA) concept on the Mars’ North polar ice cap. (Image courtesy of Don Banfield/Christ Eckert)

NASA is studying how it can harness wind power on Mars. This is following plans to deploy a future Mars polar lander during the planet’s dark winter period, which typically lasts around 300 days. The Planet Turbine Anemometer (PTA) is currently one of the concepts vying for NASA development funding. Besides supplying power, the wind turbine will also be responsible for measuring and documenting wind speed, temperature and atmospheric pressure.

“The beauty of our concept is that the turbine measures wind speeds and produces power,” said Isaac Smith, PTA concept study lead and a researcher at the Planetary Science Institute in Lakewood, Colorado. “Thus, we don’t have to take nuclear power to an ice cap for when the Sun goes down.”

The goal is to be able to use the wind force on Mars to generate sufficient milliwatts of electricity needed to keep the polar lander’s instruments functioning throughout.

Mars has less than 1 percent of Earth’s atmosphere. While winds on Mars can reach approximately 20 meters per second, 10 times the wind speed on Earth would be required to reach the equivalent force of wind. This means that a 0.5 meters per second wind on earth has the same force as a 5 meters per second wind on Mars. That also depends on where exactly one lands, particularly on geographic slopes that tend to have faster winds, according to Smith.

The data collected will also be used to study how Mars’ polar layered deposits form and evolve during a Martian year.

The turbine design will feature a 1.5-meter-tall tower that can be folded and stored on the deck of the lander until it can be safely deployed on the Mars surface. The 2-meter diameter turbine blades will use an explosive bolt mechanism to lock into place.

According to Don Banfield, a member of the PTA concept study team and Cornell University planetary scientist, they’re also looking forward to one day seeing a network of wind-powered weather stations on Mars. That would enable Mars climate researchers to gain extensive information of how dust storms grow and spread on the planet, as well as insight on how topography influences regional dust and wind flows, temperature, and solar illumination.

Smith added that it is imperative to understand Mars’ wind patterns and atmospheric processes to have safer landings in the future. However, they also share that they would “love to have a dozen or so of these [PTAs] on the polar caps” for the meantime.

The PTA proposal was submitted to NASA back in July as part of their Maturation of Instruments for Solar System Exploration (MatISSE) program. The PTA team includes partners from Ball Aerospace, MIT Haystack Observatory and Cornell University.

For more news and stories, check out this summer’s contenders on the race to Mars here.