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Discovery Newsletter

Volume 12 Discovery NewsletterIssue 4 Discovery NewsletterDecember 2000 Discovery NewsletterMontana State University-Bozeman

Main Page On the Web Patents Corner Featured Stories


MSU, Tribal Colleges Explore Wind Energy on Mars


by Evelyn Boswell

The Browning area is internationally known for consistent winds. The Fork Peck Indian Reservation has a "tremendous" number of sunlit days.

So why not take advantage of those strengths and help the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) explore energy sources for Mars while fortifying ties between Montana State University-Bozeman and the state's tribal colleges?

That's what Hugo Schmidt and William Nichols thought when they proposed a project to investigate wind energy on Mars, says Gary Bohannan, project instructor and doctoral student in physics.

Schmidt is a physics professor at MSU-Bozeman. Nichols is the Math-Science-Computers Division Chair and primary science instructor at Blackfeet Community College in Browning. They were among 11 scientists and educators whose projects were funded for 2000-2001 by the Montana Space Grant Consortium.

"I became interested in finding an alternative energy source for Mars use after I heard that the Pathfinder Mission suffered from dust degradation," Nichols said. "There was not enough sunlight and too much dust ... to keep the batteries charged. There seemed to be enough wind and air pressure to make wind-generated power feasible."

Bohannan said Mars has an atmosphere that's about 100 times thinner than the Earth's, but the wind would only have to blow four to five times faster than it does on Earth to create the same amount of electricity. In other words, 100-mph winds on Mars (typical at the Martian poles) would accomplish the same thing as 20- to 25-mph winds on Earth.

"The point is, there's a possibility of building windmills on Mars," Bohannan explained. "They just have to be designed for low pressure and high velocity."

To explore the potential for wind energy and pave the way for future collaborations between MSU and Montana's tribal colleges, MSU hosted a mini-research workshop in June. In July, the participants headed to NASA Langley Research Center with their unanswered questions. The next step is for Nichols to apply for grants to continue the research."

"The intent is to actually build a working model of a wind generator that could be taken to Mars," Bohannan said.

Participants in this summer's mini-research workshop came from three of Montana's seven Indian reservations. Mandi Bird and Monica Butterfly were students at Blackfeet Community College. Richard Blount and Jarret Medicine Elk were students at Fort Peck Community College. Valerie Bird-in-Ground Hogan was the Packard Grant coordinator and math instructor at Little Big Horn College. Justin Oleyte was a student at Little Big Horn College.

The research workshop combined hands-on experiments with physics lessons and freewheeling brainstorming, said organizer Bohannan. The students, for example, learned about a leaf that Schmidt had invented. It looks like a tree leaf, but generates electricity while flapping. The students suggested developing plastic "trees" full of the leaves to create power on Mars. At the same time, the flapping would knock dust off the leaves.

The students also designed motors and inserted them in miniature motor boats. Then they raced the boats and analyzed the motors and propellers to get a feeling for how turbines might be modified for Martian wind conditions.

"We got technical," Bohannan said. "That was the amazing thing. We got well beyond what freshman/sophomore physics classes would have done in the same time."

Butterfly said, "Most of all, what was significant was that it was all hands on. We did not have to come in expecting to be experts. We just learned on our own and had a fun time."

Nichols said his science program at BCC is set up so students can go on to complete a four-year degree, preferably at a school in the Montana University System.

Why Study Mars?

Several Montana State University-Bozeman researchers bring up Mars when they talk about the significance of their work.

But why Mars? Why not study the wind on Neptune or the ice on Pluto? Why not look for microorganisms on Mercury or signs of life on Venus?

"Of all the possible planets, Mars is, so far, the only one that would not destroy the space ship that landed on it," says Gary Bohannan, doctoral student in physics.

The "gas giants" of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are surrounded by hundreds of miles of poisonous gases. If a space ship tried to land on them, it would sink to the core, Bohannan said.

Venus' atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, and its clouds are made of sulfuric acid. Its surface temperature is more than 800 degrees, so rocks are baked to the point that cliffs can be several miles high.

"Rock like that doesn't exist on earth," Bohannan said. "You can imagine what it would do to some space ship."

Mercury is so close to the sun that any atmosphere was burned off long ago by the intense solar radiation. And Pluto is so far away that it's one big ice ball. That leaves Mars.

For another planet, Mars is about it," Bohannan said.

Mars receives about 40 percent of the light that the Earth does, which limits the potential for solar power. It's also notorious for dust, so solar panels would be quickly covered. But Mars does have a very thin atmosphere, which produces some wind. That means there's the possibility of generating energy from the wind, Bohannan said.

The planet is also physically accessible, possibly within our lifetime, and scientists think it could have water.

"Even the most extreme dust storms -- we have materials that will withstand it," bohannan added.

By doing research on Mars, astronauts avoid running into the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, said MSU graduate student Jil Hallenberg.

Bohannan said the technology doesn't exist yet to sustain humans on Mars, but "As far as we can tell, other tan the moon, it's the only one we can physically stand on without getting fried to a crisp."

Mars, he pointed out, has twice as much gravity as the moon. If you stand on he moon and hurl a hammer, you can almost send it into orbit.

Evelyn Boswell is the technical editor for the Office of Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer.

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