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Space and Katrina
By Gray Rinehart September 16, 2005

We can say very little that hasn't already been said about the inundation of the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama coasts by Hurricane Katrina. Words like "devastation" and "catastrophe" and phrases like "state of emergency" seem to have been used with such abandon that they no longer convey the scope of the situation. Perhaps no words are big enough to do so.

Our hearts go out to the families who have lost so much, and we are trying to find the best ways to help. And we are indeed thankful that so many more families are alive and safe because they heeded the warnings and evacuated the areas. How much worse would the human damage have been if the warnings had been received with less time to react? If, by the time residents understood that the hurricane was bearing down on them, the winds from the outer bands had already started to blow?

One major reason the storm was recognized so early and could be monitored so closely as it tracked across Florida, into the Gulf, and into its final landfall is the availability of detailed weather satellite data. Combined with data collected by sensor-equipped buoys and incredibly brave "Hurricane Hunter" C-130 aircrews, satellites provided the warning Gulf Coast residents received about the size and strength of the storm.

Aside: Of course, such data have to be interpreted to be understood, which leaves open the possibility of misunderstanding. We will not point fingers about preparedness or levee maintenance--there is more than enough accountability to be shared. Throughout this event, though, we could not help but hear Greg Volz singing "The river is rising, it's barely beginning to rain" and Robert Plant singing "If it keeps on raining, the levee's going to break."

Space-based systems provided a great deal of warning data, and they are helping with the recovery effort, as well. Satellite navigation systems are in use by rescue crews, and may conceivably be used to help surveying and construction teams in reconstruction efforts. Satellite communications systems are also being used by rescue crews and the media. But what of more exotic possibilities?

Space Power. Years ago we saw proposals for football-field-sized orbital solar arrays that would produce electrical power and beam it down to Earth-based receivers in the form of microwaves. What if we had one or two such arrays in place today? If sufficient relays were in place, their output could be diverted onto emergency receivers along the Gulf Coast, providing direct power for hospitals and shelters, the all-important flood-control pumps, and even for key industries.

Nighttime Evaporation? Given that orbiting power satellites would beam their power down in microwave form, if enough excess was available it could be directed not at receivers but at the water itself. Officials have estimated that it will take weeks for the water in New Orleans to recede. Pumps will do most of the work, once they all come back on (see above), and daylight evaporation will remove some water. But consider if enough high-power microwaves were available to vaporize some of the water every night. The overall impact might be minimal, but the idea brings up another interesting possibility...

Hurricane Steering? If high-power microwaves, able to evaporate significant amounts of water, could be beamed down from space, what if they were beamed into the path of a hurricane? Would they be sufficient to change its track? Or, if they were beamed into the eye wall of the storm, would they vaporize enough water to reduce the strength of the storm? It seems the process might affect the winds and perhaps raise the barometric pressure near the center of the storm, and could potentially reduce, say, a Category 4 storm into a Category 3.

We are far from being able to implement or even test ideas such as this, of course. Even the simplest of these ideas--space-based power generation itself--would require immense capital investment and concerted developmental effort. That effort might be worthwhile, however for two reasons. First, like the Apollo effort, the research and development would likely yield significant "spin-offs" that would feed other industries. Second, and perhaps more important as we prosecute the Terror War, in the long term it would reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

Note that these space power applications, as exotic as they are, would be applicable beyond the U.S. Given the right numbers of relay satellites in the right orbits, they could contribute just as well to the recovery from a typhoon in Taiwan (one of which happened just after Katrina, remember), from monsoonal flooding in Bangladesh, or from an earthquake in Afghanistan.

It may seem premature to speculate on what advanced space systems might contribute to recovery from hurricanes or other natural disasters. After all, the recovery from Katrina has only just begun and will take years. But if there is potential in these ideas, the time to address them is now. Because we do not know if the next big storm will hit in a century, a decade, or a year.

Copyright © 2005 by Gray Rinehart


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