Success! The video below shows a test the military ran off the California coast last week, in which a modified Boeing 747 carrying a laser used it to shoot down a test missile; it was the first time a laser weapon has destroyed a missile in its booster stage. DISCOVER covered the first flight tests of this system back in 2008.
The liquid-fueled rocket – thought to be a Scud-B, similar to those being developed by Iran and North Korea – was fired from a ship off the coast California on 11 February [New Scientist]. The plane locked in its tracking lasers, and then unleashed a chemical laser that burned a hole in the side of the missile to blow it up. The Missile Defense Agency ran three total tests, two of which were successful.
Despite these successes, the news isn’t good for the airborne laser program. Most scientists are pretty sceptical of missile defence. Once fast-moving warheads are in space, they are tough to intercept, and decoys can easily fool even the best systems [Nature]. This system’s approach—targeting the warhead while it’s still attached to the rocket—makes targeting easier, but it means that you must be able to strike within minutes of the missile’s launch.
As a result, President Obama has pulled back on airborne lasers. There are no other tests scheduled for this year, and the Missile Defense Agency, which manages the program, requested no money for it next year.
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Video: Missile Defense Agency