Military contractors have successfully fired a high-energy laser attached to a modified commercial aircraft, in a ground test that is a step towards testing the airborne laser system in flight. Boeing and Northrop Grumman are working on the system, which is intended to shoot down ballistic missiles.
The laser is in the back half of a Boeing 747-400F jumbo jet. Subsequent tests will increase duration and power before the beam is sent through a fire control system to a turret mounted in the nose of the aircraft [AP]. A long series of ground tests and flight tests will build up to an attempt to intercept and destroy a ballistic missile in flight; that test is scheduled for August 2009. The Defense Department has already spent $4 billion on the airborne laser system, and the final price tag is expected to reach $5 billion.
The test, conducted at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., lasted only a “fraction of a second” says a spokesman for Northrop Grumman, the makers of the Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL). But this was long enough to prove “the laser is ready to demonstrate power output sufficient to destroy a ballistic missile in flight,” he adds [Aviation Week]. The laser would work by heating the missile’s skin, weakening it and causing it to break apart from high-speed flight stress.
The system is designed to find, follow and intercept enemy missiles after they’ve been launched, according to the Air Force. In theory, the Airborne Laser would fly below the clouds, where it could track a missile in its “boost flight phase,” according to the Air Force. Then, using a high-power laser, it would knock out the weapon near its launch area…. The laser produces enough energy in a five-second burst to power a typical household for more than an hour [Air Force Times].
Image: Boeing/Bob Ferguson