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Scientists Want Robots to Fly Massive Kites on Mars to Harness Energy for Human Colonies

Representative Image. Credits: Reuters

Representative Image. Credits: Reuters

A proposal developed in response to a contest run by the European Space Agency (ESA) suggests using massive kites flown by robots to harness high Martian wind speeds.

Ever since the space race heated up 50 years ago, colonising other bodies in our solar system or beyond has been the underlying vision to find permanent settlements in space. Most of the premier space agencies are aiming to get humans on the Red Planet by the end of this decade and it is getting closer to reality. Now scientists are working on innovative ways to power these habitats, as any long-term base camps on Mars will need to be powered by renewable energy. A proposal developed in response to a contest run by the European Space Agency (ESA) suggests using massive kites flown by robots to harness high Martian wind speeds. According to Daily Mail report, researchers from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands propose flying giant kites flown by robots to generate energy. The kite will be attached by cable to a spindle and as it sails higher, the cable unspools, generating energy for a base camp.

The team developed and tested similar kites to harness wind power on Earth, however, these would be much larger, with a surface area of 530-540 square feet and the weight of the entire system, including the control unit and ground station, is around 640 pounds (approx. 290 kilograms). They estimate if coupled with solar panels, lithium batteries and compressed gas, the system could power five US households. The team expects the cost of the system, excluding transportation, would be about 8.95 million Euro, or roughly USD 10.87 million.

The research team’s methods may seem audacious, but it might be the right one. Because producing and storing renewable energy on Mars is equally challenging as shipping fossil fuel to our neighbouring planet would be prohibitive. Also, the red planet gets less than half the sunlight of Earth, making solar power ineffective and wind turbines and batteries are too heavy to be shipped, hence the idea to harness the wind energy during dust storms on Mars could be a possibility. Surface winds are faster on Mars than on Earth, about 10 to 20 miles an hour on average.

According to an open-source online journal arXiv, the research team in their proposal wrote that, ’generating renewable energy on Mars” is technologically challenging when compared to Earth. As the key energy sources such as solar and wind are weak due to low levels of ‘atmospheric pressure and solar irradiation.’

But using kites to harness wind energy is no sure thing, as a previous attempt by Alphabet, Google’s parent company shelved work on Makani, its experimental project to generate power using wind turbines attached to kites, The Verge reported. The report further cited that the project successfully developed a prototype model capable of generating 600 kilowatts in 2019, but that same year, Alphabets’ ‘Other Bets’ division, that includes Makani, incurred a loss of USD 4.8 billion.

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first published:May 12, 2021, 15:36 IST