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I wonder what kite flying might be like on Mars, in one per cent the atmospheric pressure of Earth, about two per cent the Earth's atmospheric density and 38% the Earth's surface gravity. Are there local and/or temporal conditions making kite flying possible on Mars? What would it take for an astronaut to fly a kite there? Due to Mars' thin atmosphere, I suppose astronauts would wait for a sand storm to come which would lift the kite.

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    $\begingroup$ Just by estimation, I'm skeptical that a Mars-kite could actually be constructed with our materials science today. You'd need to use some seriously thin foil and light string (akin to spider silk?) to have even a chance at it working. There's a reason parachutes can't be used to land on Mars, the atmosphere is simply too thin. $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Aug 28 at 9:40
  • $\begingroup$ The Curiosity rover did use parachutes for landing, didn't it? $\endgroup$ – Giovanni Aug 28 at 10:10
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, parachutes are used, but not for landing, only to reduce speed in flight. In Martian atmosphere, a parachutes can only reduce the speed and rocket/airbag systems are needed to bring the craft to a gentle stop. $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Aug 28 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ GIFs and images of something actually blowing in the wind on Mars: Was the telltale on the Mars Phoenix Lander used for meteorology? Why not a hot wire anemometer instead? and also How to make, read, and calibrate a ping-pong ball anemometer? $\endgroup$ – uhoh Aug 28 at 10:19
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This is an interesting question that got me thinking — and calculating, during a much-needed break from designing a rotating space station!

In short, you probably could fly a kite at Mars! Probably not the old stick-and-paper kites of 50-100 years ago (low L/D and high $\beta$; see below), but maybe a parafoil-style one.

If you're math-challenged, skip down below Eq. 12 for the summary.

It boils down to two parameters important in aerodynamics: Lift-to-drag ratio (L/D), and ballistic coefficient ($\beta$). L/D is fairly simple: for a body within a fluid (gas) flow, L/D is the ratio of the lift force the body generates divided by the drag force it generates. $\beta$ is the body's mass divided by the effective area the body presents to the flow, given by $\beta=\frac{M}{C_{D}A}$, where M is the body's mass, $C_D$ is the coefficient of drag, a measure of how "draggy" a body's shape is relative to its size, and A is the area of the body's shape projected onto a plane perpendicular to the fluid flow. $\beta$ is essentially a measure of how mass-efficient the body's structure is: how much mass does it take to make the lifting body with that effective area?

The general formula for drag force $F_D$ is

$$F_{D}=\frac{C_D}{2}A\rho V^2\tag{1}$$

and for the lift force it is just L/D times the drag force:

$$F_{L}=\frac{L}{D}\frac{C_D}{2}A\rho V^2\tag{2}$$

A kite is moored by a tether (the kite string) that overcomes the drag force, preventing the kite from flying away when, in the absence of the retarding force of the string, it comes to the local fluid velocity — as happens when the kite-flyer accidentally drops the string spool! The tension in the tether has the anti-flow-ward component to cancel the drag force, but also has a downward component because it is not parallel to the ground: it rises at some angle α from the horizontal. For this simplified derivation I'll ignore sag of the tether due to gravity and drag force on the tether, and just deal with α as the tether angle where it connects to the kite. The anti-flow-ward component, $F_{AF}$, is given by

$$F_{AF}= F_{T}\cos\alpha\tag{3}$$

where $F_T$ is the tension force in the tether. $F_{AF}$ is equal and opposite to the drag force, so

$$F_{T}\cos\alpha+\frac{C_D}{2}A\rho V^2 = 0\tag{4}$$

or

$$F_{T}\cos\alpha=-\frac{C_D}{2}A\rho V^2\tag{5}$$

so the magnitude of the tether tension is

$$F_{T} =-\frac{C_D}{2\cos\alpha}A\rho V^{2}\tag{6}$$

The magnitude of the downward component $F_P$ of the tether tension is

$$F_{P}= F_{T}\sin\alpha\tag{7}$$

acting in the same direction as gravity. This could be made zero by having α = 0, but then the kite is on the ground, a distinctly suboptimal situation for a kite! The downward force of gravity is given by

$$F_{G}= Mg\tag{8}$$

where M is the mass of the body and g is the local gravitational acceleration. The sum of those two downward forces must be counteracted by the upward force of lift, so, in terms of magnitude,

$$F_{G}+ F_{P}= F_{L}\tag{9}$$

Substituting from Eqs. 2, 6, 7, & 8,

$$Mg+\frac{C_D}{2\cos\alpha}A\rho V^{2}\sin\alpha=\frac{L}{D}\frac{C_D}{2}A\rho V^2\tag{10}$$

Combining trig terms,

$$Mg+\frac{C_D}{2}A\rho V^{2}\tan\alpha=\frac{L}{D}\frac{C_D}{2}A\rho V^2\tag{11}$$

This can be solved for V, which tells you how fast the wind must be blowing to maintain the kite's altitude:

$$V=\sqrt{2\frac{g}{\rho}\frac{M/(C_{D}A)}{(L/D)-\tan\alpha}}\tag{12}$$

If you assume for now that α is small enough that $F_P$ is much smaller than gravity and tan $\alpha$ is insignificant, this boils down to the ratio of two parameters associated with Mars, the gravitational acceleration and the air density, and the ratio of the two parameters I mentioned earlier, L/D and $\beta$. Since L/D is in the denominator, the higher the L/D (i.e., the more efficient is the airfoil), the slower is the wind speed necessary. $\beta$ is in the numerator, so the more mass it takes to implement the airfoil, the higher the necessary wind speed.

This breaks down as V approaches the speed of sound, where for most shapes $C_D$ exhibits very non-linear behavior, turbulence from local supersonic flow causes buffeting, and you can lose a significant part of the lift that's so critical to staying aloft. But specifying subsonic flow, small $\alpha$, plugging in parameters typical of Mars: $g = 3.711 \frac{m}{s^2}$, $\rho = ~0.015\frac{kg}{m^3}$; and plugging in 2.7 for L/D (appropriate for a small parafoil-type kite) and 0.25 $\frac{kg}{m^2}$ for $\beta$ (maybe a bit sporty!), you get a wind speed of ~6.8 m/s (~15 MPH) to just barely break even, with no tether weight considered, and $\alpha$ close to zero. To get it to fly at a higher $\alpha$ and at an altitude where the tether weight is no longer insignificant, you need either a higher L/D, a lower $\beta$, or both.

Wind speeds of 7 m/s are not uncommon at Mars, and sometimes are significantly higher than that, so at times (catch as can — try predicting the winds at Mars!) this might actually work.

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  • $\begingroup$ You're designing a rotating space station? I thought there are currently no such interests among space agencies and companies, except Nautilus-X NASA's concepted Mars spacecraft. For whom do you design it and what will it be? An ISS successor? Perhaps you should design it to make Martian 0.38g gravity, not 1g, in order to test the long-term effects of partial gravity on man in a safer environment than Mars (just my proposal). $\endgroup$ – Giovanni Aug 29 at 5:28
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your interest. The ISS has shown conclusively that 0 g is not viable for long-term space flight, with potentially fatal effects (blood clots) in as little as 6 months. I'm the Chief Space Systems Architect, Chief Technical Officer, and VP for Engineering for Orbital Assembly Corp, and we're designing "Voyager Station", initially aiming at lunar g but later expandable to Mars g, maybe even 0.5 g. Among other uses, we anticipate seminal research on the health effects of long-term exposure to various levels of g: how much is needed to prevent these symptoms? $\endgroup$ – Tom Spilker Aug 29 at 5:36
  • $\begingroup$ Lunar gravity is not good on a rotational space station. Humans start to perceive proper rotational gravity from 0.22g on. Rotational 0.166g would feel weird. Will the Voyager Station be an ISS successor or a purely American space station? And about the fatal 0g: what you describe (blood clots) didn't ever happen nor threathened to happen, did it? $\endgroup$ – Giovanni Aug 29 at 5:50
  • $\begingroup$ Rotation rate is more important than centripetal acceleration; we want to keep that fairly low to start, and to do initial tests of the station's systems. And yes, there's been one documented case of a blood clot on an astronaut on ISS; one story at wired.com/story/blood-clot-space-station. They were lucky: they had blood thinners for a stop-gap treatment, and a cargo craft coming up 2 weeks later brought up clot-buster drugs. Had they been on a Mars transfer trajectory, the outcome could have been much worse. $\endgroup$ – Tom Spilker Aug 29 at 5:59
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    $\begingroup$ I found your website. It seems Voyager is especially for space tourists. What you're planning is wonderful! voyagerstation.com $\endgroup$ – Giovanni Aug 29 at 11:06

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