Solar power would be the superior option to nuclear power for manned Mars missions near the planet’s equator, a new study concludes.
The researchers found that a six-person Red Planet mission could be sufficiently powered by photovoltaic systems, adding to decades of research on the benefits of solar energy as used by NASA’s robotic Mars explorers like rovers. Spirit and Opportunity and the InSight lander.
And humans could clean solar panels on site, the study authors noted, avoiding the problem of dust buildup that has plagued Mars spacecraft over the years. (A huge dust storm killed Opportunity in 2018.)
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The team’s modeling work suggests that as long as the manned mission is near the sun-rich Martian equator, metrics of solar intensity and surface temperature would have a superior trade-off to a nuclear fission system in terms of mass. needed and energy generated.
The model assumes that solar energy could be stored on site using a compressed hydrogen power system (since hydrogen would likely be feasible to extract on the Martian surface, if necessary).
“Closer to the equator, solar power wins; closer to the poles, nuclear power,” study co-senior author Aaron Berliner, a bioengineering graduate student at the Arkin Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement. .
However, the Martian poles are a more extreme environment for astronauts to endure, with less sunlight and larger temperature swings than equatorial locations.
The study took into account not only the mass and energy of the two competing systems, but also environmental conditions, such as how gases and particles in Mars’ atmosphere absorb or scatter light. The goal was to better understand how much solar radiation would reach the Martian surface and where would be the best place to deploy the solar panels.
Solar panels would use electricity to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, and the hydrogen would be placed in pressurized containers for storage. Hydrogen would later be electrified inside fuel cells to produce power. Unneeded hydrogen could be reused, helping to generate ammonia to fertilize plants, as long as the hydrogen is combined with nitrogen in a similar way to how it is done on Earth.
The researchers recognized that other technologies, such as the electrolysis of water to create hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells, can also be used on Mars. These systems tend to be expensive on Earth, but could be “game-changers” on the surface of the Red Planet, where everything would have to be shipped at high cost from our own planet or produced with available resources on the surface.
Berliner and co-senior author Anthony Abel, a Ph.D. in chemical and biomolecular engineering. UC Berkeley student, both are members of the Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space (CUBES), which counts several academic institutions among its members.
The solar energy situation aligns with the work that CUBES already has underway, according to the statement. The group aims to engineer microbes that can make plastics from carbon dioxide and hydrogen, and pharmaceuticals from carbon dioxide and sunlight.
Because the new item creates a “budget” for electricity and hydrogen on Mars, the researchers plan to use it to further develop CUBES biotechnologies.
“The hope is ultimately to build a complete model of the system, with all components included, which we envision will help plan a mission to Mars, assess trade-offs, identify risks and propose mitigation strategies, either in advance or during the mission,” Berliner said.
The new study was published today (April 27) in the journal Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences.