Message-Id: <>
Date: Wed, 07 Oct 1998 05:02:56 +0000
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From: Institute for Global Futures Research (IGFR) <>
Subject: Global Futures Bulletin #69

Military interest in space-based solar power

By Regina Hagen, Global Futures Bulletin, #69, 1 October 1998

The US Air Force is officially planning for war from Space and for war in Space. The required new technologies are explored in a 13 volume document entitled New World Vistas: Air and Space Power for the 21st Century by the USAF Scientific Advisory Board [1].

Each volume of New World Vistas focuses on a specific topic, eg on Materials, Attack, Munitions, or Aircraft & Propulsion.

Due to general budgetary cutbacks in defense spending ... the successful pursuit of our new missions will demand creative use of commercial systems and technologies. This will produce an intimate intertwining of commercial and military applications to an extent not yet encountered.[2]

A key consideration is how to provide the tremendous power requirement for the desired Space-based platforms and weapons systems. Although they see that radioisotope thermoelectric generators, nuclear reactors, as well as nuclear propulsion—is the natural technology to enable high power in space, they recognise political and social resistance to this option [3]. Current international treaties do not preclude the location of nuclear reactors in Space [4].

Their vision: It is highly likely that very large orbiting solar power stations capable of delivering energy to the earth will be built in space in the next several decades by the commercial sector. ... These systems will likely use microwaves or millimeter waves for power transmission. It is not likely that we could use such systems in a dual-use mode as space weapons.. [however] ...the DoD could purchase power on demand from such systems. [5]

Due to budgetary restrictions the civil organization NASA has long been a willing partner of the military. For some time now they have been working on plans for solar power stations in Space. In a recent report a consortium (comprising the Science Application International Corporation, Futron Corporation, and NASA) examines the technological and financial feasibility of power production in space [6].

A favored model in the study is the Sun Tower. The modular structure consists of several satellites, each of which resembles a large sunflower pointed at Earth. The transmitter is the flower, the sun collectors are the leaves (each ~50m in diameter) along the stem or backbone which is 3-5 km long, and used to stabilize the structure as well as to conduct the energy to the transmitter. The transmitter is a dish ~200m wide, and would transmit a 5.8 GHz microwave beam to a large receiver on earth—landbased or seabased—from where the power can be fed into a grid.

If this form of power generation becomes financially viable, one could question the ramifications regarding centralised control of energy generation (eg further US corporate influence/control over foreign states), health and environmental impact of powerful microwave beams; potential of misuse of the microwave beam by redirecting transmitter; potential of accidents, eg aircraft flying through the beam.

[1] USAF Scientific Advisory Board, New World Vistas. Air and Space Power for the 21st Century, (1995)

[2] USAF op cit Preface.

[3] USAF op cit vol Space Technology, p 29

[4] The Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space, adopted in 1992 (resolution 47/68), recognize that nuclear power sources are essential for some missions, but that such systems should be designed so as to minimize public exposure to radiation in the case of accident.

[5] USAF op cit vol Space Applications, p 85

[6] NASA Space Solar Power. A Fresh Look at the Feasibility of Generating Solar Power in Space for Use on Earth, April (1997)


Military advantage and use of Space-based solar power plants may direct R&D funding into such projects where commercial considerations (with full risk and environmental assessment) alone might not justify such research and development.

Prevention of the nuclearisation and further militarisation of Space depends on continued vigilance of the civil sector and other responsible actors.

As telematics (informatics and telecommunications), energy and media become more significant components of military strategy, the distinction between civilian and military facilities becomes ever more blurred, making the prospect of demilitarisation (eg of Space) more difficult in the future.

One might consider that the more dispersed the ownership and control of telematics, energy and media networks, and the more decentralised the structure of the respective systems, the less likely they can be appropriated for military use.

The apparent detrimental outcomes of the current form of globalisation (concentration of wealth and control, as well as transfer of wealth and control from the periphery to the core) suggest that we need to develop new economic national membranes to provide for stability and improving equity, and ensure an acceptable degree of national (and regional) sovereignty, where trade barriers, foreign ownership laws, regulations and discretionary (or arbitrary) government intervention previously fulfilled this function.

Similarly we might reconsider new ways of introducing firewalls, and self-reliant sub-systems to global systems and networks (telematics, energy, media) to provide for a minimum degree of stability, diversity and resilience in the interests of security, sovereignty, and equity.

Given good technological and commercial justification for developing Space-based solar power plants, and a low risk and environmental impact assessment, (unlikely given the hazards of microwave radiation) it might be that with time, hundreds could be developed and owned by a broad range of commercial and public consortia.

{2. peace and conflict resolution; 4. energy}