New article on Airborne lasers

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Lasers, though, travel at the speed of light and can be tuned perfectly to bull's-eye a moving object hundreds of miles away. "When talking about the ability to put force on target, there is nothing faster or more precise than a laser," says Air Force Col. Ellen Pawlikowski, who heads the $1.6 billion ABL program.

The laser weapon project, run by the Missile Defense Agency for the Air Force, has already met significant benchmarks. A modified Boeing 747 made its first flight, sans laser but with the new nose turret in place to test its aerodynamic impact, last July 18.

The high-energy laser—the chemical oxygen-iodine laser that actually attacks the missile—built by Northrop Grumman Space Technology (formerly TRW) reached 118 percent operating power during a successful test firing at the company's facility near Los Angeles six months earlier.

Next step: The laser will be installed in the 747 this summer and, following more tests, will be on track to the make-or-break goal of shooting down a Scud-like ballistic missile by the end of 2004 or early 2005. At that point, the prototype could conceivably become an operational emergency-use weapon while a fleet of seven or more laser-equipped aircraft is being built.

Shattuck exudes confidence. "These are mature technologies, and the real challenge has simply been integrating all of them into a working airborne platform," he says. "Now we're in the final phase of that, putting all of the pieces into one end-to-end system and just wringing it out."

Here's how it will happen: Six infrared sensors positioned on the fuselage will constantly scan all directions for hot missile exhaust plumes, which they can do autonomously or at the prompt of launch-detecting satellites.

When one, or several, is located, the ABL's multiple separate lasers will swing into action—all within seconds. A laser ranging pod atop the plane's cockpit, right now almost four stories above us as we stand on the ground, will spin around to face the first missile— the one the computer has determined is most threatening —and measure its distance with a carbon dioxide laser.

The track illuminator laser, fired through the 12-inch aperture of the Wall of Fire and into the nose turret, will compensate for aircraft vibration and then pinpoint a specific area of the missile to aim at. The beacon illuminator laser, also fired through the nose turret, where a cassegrain reflector telescope expands the beam's dimensions to 1.5 meters, will then use the beam-and fire- control unit's adaptive optics to characterize the missile's dimensions. (These optics, standard equipment on all the ABL's turret-fired lasers, extend their range with mirror- flexing technology to compensate for atmospheric turbulence.)

Finally, the computer will fire the high-energy laser, which will focus down from 1.5 meters in diameter to a much smaller spot of light by the time it reaches the target. As the laser dwells on the missile's flank for 2 or 3 seconds, the oxidizer or fuel tank will rupture and the missile will explode. The ABL will carry enough reactants for about 20 shots on target.
By netchicken: posted on 21-7-2003

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