Space-Based Solar Power

a public discussion sponsored by the Space Frontier Foundation

Weaponization, Environmental Risk, and Multinational Approaches

Posted by Coyote on August 10, 2008

Today I was asked by a politically-minded individual what political hurtles space-based solar power might face when confronted with questions of weaponization, safety, and multinational approaches. My reply is below. Please check my work!

“Your concern about weaponization of the system and environmental risks are proper and deserve solid answers. For the answers (and a whole bunch of other great information) let me point you to a special edition of Ad Astra magazine produced by the National Space Society.

If you look on page 29 you’ll see the answers as to why space-based solar power satellites cannot be weaponized. Let me add to that list the following items:

  • The DoD will not own or operate SBSP satellites. Energy production and distribution is outside of its Title X authority. In my opinion the DoD merely wants to be a customer of safe, clean energy and is most comfortable purchasing its energy from commercial vendors, just as it does today. The interest shown by the National Security Space Office (NSSO) in hosting the work done by the Space-Based Solar Power Study Group was largely because NASA does not do energy and the DoE does not do space. In other words, it was a ball being dropped along organizational lines.
  • The security-related interest of the NSSO as it stepped in to host the study was three fold:
    • Provide more energy sources to hopefully alleviate energy competition as a trigger for war between the major powers in the 21st Century
    • Achieve American energy independence from foreign oil suppliers who attract US vital interests in areas and with peoples with whom we really would prefer to interact with in ways other than a dependent customer-supplier relationship.
    • Provide a source of clean energy that provides America with broader options regarding carbon contamination and clean-up, as well as improved ability to make progress on treaties such as Kyoto.
  • Simple inspections of the waveguides for either laser or microwave transmitters on the satellites can easily verify that the beam cannot be focused narrowly to create a weapons effect. Such inspections can and likely will be conducted at time of insurance inspection, licensing, and registration before launch. International inspectors would be welcome and encouraged.
  • The goal is to have international corporations own and operate these satellites and provide power to international customers–that’s the key to defense of these huge birds–deterrence by mutual defense through broad international ownership and international customership–an attack on a satellite is an attack against all.

As for environmental safety, especially when transmitting power into disaster areas and feeding power to forward bases, I envision spreading the several kilometer in diameter rectifying antenna on air bases or other relatively secure areas in the theater of operations and using ground broadcasting from there to the forward forces, first responders, or relief workers. That way we keep the beam from space very broad and desaturated. No way do we want ANY accusation of this being a weapon.

Keep in mind that there are two forms of power broadcasting that can be done from satellites. The first form is by microwave at 2.45 GHz and 5.8 GHz. These are the same frequencies that are used by internet wifi, cordless phones, and blue tooth. Since the beam is fairly well focused on the rectifying antenna we will prevent interference with those systems. In addition, the intensity of a cellular telephone placed next to the head delivers more radiation to the user than space-based solar power possibly can. The second form of power transmission from space is by laser at 1.0 microns (silicon) or 0.86 microns (Galium Arsinide). Laser transmissions are obviously more focused than microwave, but still must be spread to prevent overheating of the system, which also removes the risk of weaponization.

As for multinational approaches, when it comes to space, government-led multinational ventures are risky for a very strange and almost counterintuitive reason. The International Space Station (ISS) is a case in point. We assembled it with our very best allies and partners, but everybody got their feelings hurt in the process. In my opinion, it is far less likely that we will cooperate on such projects government-to-government in the near future because of the miserable experience of the ISS. Everybody was waiting for various governments to cut their red tape and stood around tensely waiting for last-minute funding and various approvals for go-aheads. Budgets changed frequently which drove some dramatic redesigns that impacted several other players. As a result, the project had all the joy of loaning money to relatives with gambling problems.

I personally believe that in order to make space-based solar power a reality that business must lead the way. However, government does have a role. Governments should conduct some R&D to improve efficiencies inherent to the system, remove bureaucratic barriers, and fund experiments to incrementally buy down some of the risk that business must take on. Examples include increasing the efficiencies of solar cells, lowering the cost and increasing the turnaround rate for launch vehicles, advancing the development of an international space traffic control system, securing the orbital parking slots and frequency allowances for these satellites, and conducting concept demonstrators.

It is also my opinion that it is best if commercial companies take government research and lead the development effort for space-based solar power, and then own and operate such systems. In the first instance, they partner more broadly and far easier than governments do. Take a Boeing aircraft for example. Nearly 40% of the components on the latest Boeing aircraft are made by Airbus. Conversely, nearly 40% of the components on the latest Airbus aircraft are made by Boeing. That did not take massive government negotiations. Business is international by its very nature. Take a look at the products in your home. They are likely a hodgepodge of gadgets with parts made all over the world and assembled somewhere else. It’s nothing personal, it’s just business. The problem with government leadership is that it often gets personal.

Best of all, when business is enabled to get the job done, they do so on their own dime, not the taxpayer’s. I like it when the taxpayers get a break. I want space-based solar power in the worst way, but not on the backs of the taxpayer, and only when the business case is sufficiently made that industry can profitably sustain the effort over the long run. We must avoid the fits and starts in industry that did such great damage to the overall space industry in the 1990s when wild enthusiasm collided with reality on several projects. In the end, I want the commercial sector to do it, and I want my government to clear the obstacles, such as ITAR (which I hate with a passion), out of the way so Americans can work with their international business partners to start bending the steel to make it happen!

Space-Based Solar Power is a huge undertaking. I need fleets of reusable rockets and spaceplanes to get ‘er done. Since these birds MUST be launched into a prograde orbit, I need lots and lots of lift coming out of Florida and hopefully other domestic launch sites to make it happen. That said, current sites cannot accommodate the full compliment of launches that I will need without massive expansion. I will need launches from international partners as well. If led by American industry, this will make America the hub of commercial space launch once again–with the busiest launch industry in the world. Think jobs, jobs, jobs. The shuttle is peanuts compared to this project.

I want to hit on the fact that space-based solar power transcends other projects because it crosses the lines of 6 major policy areas; Energy, Environment, Commerce, Space, Education, and Defense. Every dollar spent on SBSP addresses six sets of policies. Where else can government and the business sector collaborate to get a 6-to-1 return on investment for our future? As you see, there is no bureaucratic home for SBSP inside any single government organization. Perhaps this is another argument why this is best done in the business sector.

Space-based solar power is part of an energy diet that should be rich with a variety of safe, clean energy sources for America, its Allies, and the World. It is NOT the answer to ALL problems, but it IS part of solution.”

Your thoughts on my reply?

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13 Responses to “Weaponization, Environmental Risk, and Multinational Approaches”

  1. Robert said

    There is a painting by Pat Rawlings on the front cover of Gerard O’Neill’s book “The High Frontier”, 2nd edition. The subject is a family of four on a beach. The father is watching his son and daughter shovel sand in a bucket. The mother is putting on sunscreen after an apparent swim. There are other folks on the beach and in the water in the background. The normality of the subject matter is difficult for some to comprehend given its context, because the scene is not a place on earth, it is a place in high orbit. The family income is based on SSP manufacture, and they live in a house or a multi-family unit in a 1-g habitat near the SSP plant. This sort of imagery (which is technically based, NOT science-fiction based) is what sold SSP to a lot of folks in my age bracket. We were more interested in kids with buckets and keeping the grass mowed than in horrific space weapons. Coyote understands this imagery, and the SSP community needs to promote success over fear. DOD is just another agency to review SSP favorably. NASA and DOE are others. Because of the urgency of success in the 5 policy areas that Coyote discussed, energy, environment, commerce, space, and education, a leapfrog over fear is our task.

  2. Coyote said

    Robert: You have hit on something very important. As you succinctly put it, “the SSP community needs to promote success over fear.” That’s right. There are many highly intelligent, credible, and influential people who are (or will be) very concerned about the weapons potential and environmental impact of space-based solar power. They may dismiss space-based solar power out of fear unless we can demonstrate the security and safety of such systems to their satisfaction. Fortunately, we are on the same side of this issue because we do NOT want space-based solar power if it can be used as a weapon or if it damages our one-and-only environment. So, there is no need for confrontation with people who harbour such fear. Instead, let’s encourage them to join in the discussion. We can really use the help of security doves and environmental watch dogs who can assist us in getting this right. I’m confident that the more we learn and the more open we are about space-based solar power that we will help promote success over fear! There are those who will never be convinced of the security and safety of space-based solar power. But then again, there are people out there who think the Apollo Moon landings were a hoax. They make the world an interesting place.

    Cheers!

    Coyote
    P.S. I really liked the way you described the cover of O’Neill’s book. What a great visual image. Space is a place where humans will live ordinary lives.

  3. Chris C. said

    I’m new to this post but interested in SBSP. May I politely inquire: Who is Coyote? He speaks with a great deal of authority as in “I need fleets of reusable rockets…”

  4. admin said

    according to the recently updated Team Leaders page:

    Colonel M.V. “Coyote” Smith, is a PhD student in the strategic studies program under Professor Colin Gray at the University of Reading in the UK. His PhD thesis proposes a spacepower theory to define, categorize, explain, connect, and anticipate economic and security activities in space. Until September 2007, he was the Chief of Future Concepts (Dream Works) for the National Security Space Office at the Pentagon, and the Director of the Space-Based Solar Power Study. He, along with the other military members of the Caballeros, received the National Space Society’s 2008 Space Pioneer Award for their innovative work leading the Space-Solar Power Study Group and completing the Phase 0 Interim Assessment. His first book, Ten Propositions Regarding Spacepower, is considered a foundational work for understanding spacepower.

  5. Coyote said

    Chris C.: I look forward to meeting you!

    Admin: Yup. That’s little ol’ me.

    Cheers!

  6. Mekhong Kurt said

    You’re especially correct in arguing business needs to lead the way. The various privately-owned space companies are examples. For that matter, T. Boone Pickens wind farm venture in west Texas is another, if in another sort of alternative energy.

    It’s particularly important for business to be involved because business can drive costs down dramatically. Just consider ever-evolving computers. I bought one a couple of weeks ago that has five times the hard disk space and 12 times the RAM my previous laptop did — at well under half the price. (Plus it’s wireless, plus it has a built-in microphone and webcam — plus, plus, plus, most of which I didn’t have before, not built in anyway.)

    There is one unpleasant point we can’t forget: there are bad guys who would weaponize such technology in a heartbeat, if they could. Governments will have to be involved there.

    But I’m a huge proponent of solar power (along with others), so don’t think I’m nitpicking — I’m not.

    I really impressed with this article.

  7. Mekhong Kurt said

    Excuse my glaring errors in my previous submission — I’m jet-lagged out and have been under the weather. Sorry.

  8. Coyote said

    Mekhong Kurt: I hope you’re feeling better and getting some rest! It is incredible what’s happened inside the computer and electronics industries. Things get cheaper and more capable all the time. I hope we can do the same with the safe, clean energy industry!

  9. Chris C. said

    Thanks for the info, “Coyote”. I’d like to get a copy of your book. My son Anthony is founder of a video game design studio in Austin – Heatwave Interactive – and he is very interested in Space-based Solar. I’m helping him with a little basic research just gather some data etc (he’s a busy guy).
    What do you think of the “State of Space Solar Power Technology” conference being held in October? Worth attending? http://www.upcomingevents.ctc.com/sbsp/sbsp.html

    Chris Castoro
    Pine Bluff, Arkansas USA

  10. Coyote said

    Chris C.: My book, Ten Propositions Regarding Spacepower, is available for free online. Just browse the title and my name, M.V. Smith. It does not deal with space-based solar power, but rather makes the case for spacepower as a concept separate from airpower. It deals mostly with the historical development of America’s national spacefaring ability and sets it apart from the flying side of the Air Force. Probably not what you were thinking, huh?
    Anthony’s business sounds entirely cool! It would be awesome if he could integrate space-based solar power into his video games, just to get the players thinking about it.
    I am planning on attending the conference in October. It is critical for us to come together to find out who is doing what. If you can attend, I would recommend it. It is unfortunate that it coincides with a conference being held in Glasgow, Scotland, at the same time. That conference is taking away many of the real brainiacs in this game, especially John Mankins. He’s been committed to the other conference for over a year. Too bad, but it happens. I will be working the crowd at the conference in Florida to drum up support for a little initiative we have going on at the Eisenhower Center at YOUR United States Air Force Academy to build the first-ever space-based solar power system as a full concept demo. Stay tuned here for more details!

    Cheers!

    Coyote

  11. worldmilitaryhistory said

    An effective statement on a vital issue. We need energy independence for a number of reasons, including — but not limited to — national security.
    Your blog is making a great contribution to the discussion.
    A question: Are you still on active duty?

    Best,
    Sidney

  12. Coyote said

    Sidney: Yes, I am still on active duty. Thanks for the comments. I am all ears whenever you’ve got something to say!

    Cheers!

    Coyote

  13. solarsalvation said

    I’m ready and willing to evangelize the planet on behalf of of SSP, stressing its stellar (pardon the pun) benefits over the fear factor… as far as I am concerned the fear factor can be drastically reduced if we can make available literature which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that this technology is benign. More than benign: bountifully beneficial. But from the looks of the posts on change.gov, the public at large needs great reassurance that SSP will not cause cancer, negatively effect Earth’s atmosphere, or be appropriated for weaponization. I know this information is out there. If we can compile sufficient documentation in an easy-to-read format, I would be more than happy to work tirelessly in disseminating this information as a preliminary to stimulating public interest in order to gather funding for a commercial-grade SSP project. I have the next month off of school to begin working on this. Anyone interested in compiling such a document please e-mail me:
    reenchantment@gmail.com

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