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?