High-Tech Fizzle: Laser-Bearing Jumbo Jet Fails to Destroy Test Missile

By Joseph Calamia | September 9, 2010 4:55 pm

laserplaneThe US Missile Defense Agency’s flying laser failed to shoot down a test missile last week. Though in February the same plane successfully destroyed one from 50 miles away, last week’s test at a weapons range off California’s coast was meant to show the Airborne Laser Testbed‘s (ALTB) ability to hit missiles at a 100-mile range.

The laser and jumbo jet combo successfully tracked the missile and hit it, but stopped short of complete destruction, reports AOL News, which broke the story. The agency had not announced the test, which it had rescheduled several times.

“Program officials will conduct an extensive investigation to determine the cause of the failure to destroy the target missile,” the agency said in an e-mailed statement…. [The test], which was designed to demonstrate the weapon’s capability at ranges twice the distance of the initial test, had been delayed at least four times due to various glitches, including problems with the target missile. At one point, the test was scheduled to take place at the opening of a major missile defense conference in Huntsville, Ala., but was delayed due to a software glitch. [AOL News]

Even when the plane successfully destroyed its target earlier this year, as 80beats described in February, the program’s future was uncertain: Originally meant to be the first of a fleet of airborne lasers, the plane got “testbed” tacked onto its name by the Obama administration to signify its downgrade to experimental status, and the program did not request any additional funding after this year.

Besides its failure to destroy missiles, one reason for abandoning the project could be the giant chemical gas laser it uses–perhaps passé given recent research on electric-powered lasers:

The ALTB’s chemical gas laser technology is the only practicable method at the moment to generate a multi-megawatt beam, but it has severe disadvantages. The fuels for the raygun are corrosive and toxic, as are the exhaust products, and though details are classified US officials have suggested that a blaster-jumbo needs reloading after only a few “shots”. Such a reload, packaged on wheeled carts for use at a forward airbase, would fill two monster C-17 transport planes–indicating that supporting an operational fleet of ABLs would be a huge and expensive effort. [The Register]

Electric lasers might prove a better alternative, The Register reports–though they too would need more work, since for one they emit more energy in the form of internal heat than they produce in the beam. The Agency may have more to say on the laser plane’s future when the project’s funding runs out this month.

Sure, its track record is, ahem, uneven. But the plane is a congressional favorite because—hello, flying missile-zapping laser. Just FYI: the money for the Airborne Laser—$146 million, this year alone —runs out this month. Then it flies off into an uncertain future. [Wired]

Related content:
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Image: Missile Defense Agency

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
  • Eagle

    50 Feet 100 Feet??????? Try replacing feet with Kilometers but still they would need a 200 Kilometer kill distance to be effective as a standoff weapon. A different Laser likely alkali metal
    Ions excited by Diode Lasers might be most promising replacement for the Chemicals used in the current design.

  • meadhimself

    Talk about financial black hole. More wise spending by our competent elected officials. Thank god someone in the Obama administration took the time to LEARN about a subject before throwing hundreds of millions of dollars @ it, and downgraded its importence. Was that even ever supposed to work? The cold war is over. Not too many superpowers aiming ICBM’s at us these days.

  • amphiox

    50 – 100 feet is shorter than the effective combat range of a longbow. . . . (And I’m not talking about the helicopter.)

  • YetAnotherBob

    this is an early experimental test bed.

    Even the Military knows that an interception system needs more than a 50 to 100 foot (15 – 30 Meters) range. But, it is showing what is needed to put laser weapons into the air.

    I suspect that the pointing system needs work. The laser is a chemical dye system, as that is the only thing that worked when the unit was proposed. Also note that this is on a 747!

    It is not yet a deploy-able system. Future vastly improved versions might be. As a test system, it is worth it. It is not finished. A laser system on a moving (and therefore shaking) vehicle is not an easy thing. They should continue working on this. a few hundred million a year for another 5 years is not unreasonable. In 10 to 15 years this will be worth having.

    We can do it from the ground right now. So can the Chinese and the Russians. Nobody can yet do it from the air.

  • Brian Too

    Strange that it worked at 50 feet but not 100 feet. I’d guess that the problem isn’t the additional (paltry) range, but more likely that their targeting system isn’t reliable yet. It might have been roughly as likely to have failed at 50 feet and worked at 100.

    Also, isn’t flying even a dummy missile 50-100 feet away from a 747 kinda hazardous? Mid-air collisions are a very bad thing.

  • Bob

    50 and 100 ft. are obviously wrong. Go read the public information available on this. How the hell would they fly a superconic missile within 100 ft. of a 747 in flight? The author of this blog understands very little about the system. It would be funny if it didn’t spread disinformation that similarly uninformed people believe. Everyone who reads this post is dumber for having read it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Our deepest apologies for the typos — it should have read 50 and 100 miles, and it does now. There was an error in the original source material when this post was written.

    — Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • http://www.good-market.org/ Augustina Sweeden

    LSU coach Les Miles is on the hot seat as the program has been erratic since the 2007 BCS championship run. While the Tigers are talented and have bowled each season since fans are upset that the program is not keeping pace with Alabama and former LSU head coach Nick Saban. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson will be a key to the hopes of LSU after throwing for 2,166 yards and 17 TD’s last year. the north face ,The junior will be in his second season as the starter.


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