Flares have been washing up on beaches for a long time:
an AP news item from February 23, 1993
Last week, several small stones in the pocket of a California woman’s shorts exploded into flame, leaving her with third-degree burns. The stones came from a beach at San Onofre State Beach in San Diego, which she’d visited earlier in the day.
The story caused a sensation, as media discussed what could make rocks catch on fire. By Friday, California environmental health officials had an answer, or at least part of one: two of the rocks were covered in phosphorus, an element that’s known for igniting into a fierce white flame when it’s exposed to air. Near as they can tell, as long as the rocks were wet with seawater, the phosphorus didn’t ignite, but after they’d dried out in the woman’s pockets over the course of the day, the phosphorus reacted explosively.
But how did the rocks get covered with phosphorus? Though the substance is mined and used in fertilizers, it isn’t very common in in the natural world in its explosive form, called white phosphorus. White phosphorous does, however, have a long history of production by militaries, who use it in flares. Unexploded military flares, presumably dropped by aircraft, have been known to wash up on beaches: Just last year flares washed up on a beach a half-hour’s drive from San Onofre. NBC reported that those flares were from military exercises going on off the coast.
Unmanned drones like this Predator are now central to US warfare—but they are also vulnerable to cyberattacks.
What’s the News: A computer virus that records the keystrokes of US military operators has infected two classes of American military drones. “We keep wiping it off, and it keeps coming back,” a military source told Wired’s Danger Room, which broke the story. “We think it’s benign. But we just don’t know.”
Giant pixels pasted onto tanks can now sense the general pattern of infrared energy, or heat, distributed around a bucolic mountain meadow or windy desert and camouflage the vehicle accordingly, so heat-spying eyes will be none the wiser. Read More
What’s the News: The helicopter that crashed during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound earlier this week was a stealth design that the US government had kept secret, according to aviation experts. The military is still keeping mum and the SEALs—keeping with protocol—burned the aircraft after it went down. But information gleaned from photos of the surviving tailboom (the part that holds the rear rotor) and clues from other stealth aircraft suggest the helicopter was an H-60 Blackhawk, heavily modified to escape radar detection and fly more quietly—explaining why Pakistani air forces didn’t detect the helicopters.
Military watchers are all atwitter this week about J-20, the Chinese stealth aircraft that has now taken to the skies in its inaugural test flight. It’s the country’s first radar-evading plane. The question is, what is it for, and should we worry?
The aircraft appears most similar to the F-22 Raptor, the United States’ stealth bomber/fighter and the only one of its kind in the world.
“From what we can see, I conclude that this aircraft does have great potential to be superior in some respects to the American F-22, and could be decisively superior to the F-35 [joint strike fighter],” claims Richard Fisher, a senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a Washington-based security think tank. [Los Angeles Times]
At 70 feet, the J-20 is actually longer than the Raptor by 10 feet. To some, that size would suggest its makers are attempting to maximize range, making the J-20 as much a bomber as a fighter.
Last week the Navy took its best shot–and it was a doozy. The shot, fired on December 10th, broke the world record for the most powerful shot, as the 23-pound aluminum projectile rocketed out of the Navy’s electromagnetic railgun at a reported speed of Mach 7, or seven times the speed of sound.
Today’s 33-megajoule shot–powerful enough to launch 33 Smart cars at 100 mph–means the Navy can fire projectiles at least 125 miles, keeping military personnel at a safe distance from their targets, according to the Office of Naval Research. [Popular Science]
The weapon is called the XM-25, Counter Defilade (a word I had to look up) Target Engagement System–basically, it provides a way to shoot someone who is hiding behind an obstacle. It works by shooting a mini-grenade-like round that is programmed to detonate after passing the barrier. The detonation scatters lethal shrapnel toward the enemy target.
The weapon’s computing sight measures the distance to the target precisely using a laser, and corrects automatically for such factors as air pressure, temperature, relative elevation etc. Buttons above the trigger allow the point at which the shells will detonate to be moved nearer or further away. [The Register]
Unmanned aerial vehicles beware: We’ve got laser weapons.
This week defense contractor Raytheon debuted video of a test conducted with the U.S. Navy in California this May, in which the company’s laser weapon shot down four UAVs. The shaky black-and-white footage shows lasers locked on an aircraft until it loses control and plunges into the sea.
The Navy’s laser depends upon a guidance system it already uses on its ships—Raytheon’s Phalanx Close-In Weapon System, which normally uses radar to guide a 20mm Gatling gun.
Raytheon developed the system after buying six off-the-shelf commercial lasers from the car industry and joining them to make a single, powerful beam guided by the Phalanx’s radars. Unlike other tests which have been conducted on aircraft it uses a solid state laser rather than a chemical generated beam [The Telegraph].
The next generation of spies from on high continue to emerge, with two secretive unmanned planes making their public debuts this week.
Boeing Phantom Eye
The Phantom Eye, which Boeing unveiled this week, will take to the skies next year on the power of hydrogen. The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) should be able to cruise at an altitude of 65,000 feet.
But the propeller-driven Phantom Eye is no muscle plane. It’ll have a pair of 150-horsepower, 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engines. Boeing says the UAV, with a 150-foot wingspan, will be able to cruise at about 150 knots [172 miles per hour] and carry a payload of up to 450 pounds [CNET].
The plane won’t need to carry much weight, though, because it’s intend to spy, not attack. Boeing says the Phantom Eye will be able to stay aloft for four consecutive days, executing “persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.” Its size and breezy pace mean it’s built for endurance and not stealth. But that might not be true for Boeing’s other UAV project, the menacing Phantom Ray that will make a test flight in December.
It was a big week for experimental military aircraft, with the Air Force’s secretive X-37B space plane and the Navy’s biofuel-powered “Green Hornet” both achieving successful test flights. But the most ambitious—the HTV-2 hypersonic glider under development by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—lost contact with its operators during its run.
Launched from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. on April 22, the unmanned HTV-2 was planned to cross the Pacific and impact the ocean north of Kwajalein Atoll in the first of two flights to demonstrate technology for a prompt global strike weapon [Aviation Week]. It successfully achieved separation from its booster rocket high in the atmosphere; however, nine minutes into the test the glider lost communication. Now the military is studying the test flight telemetry to figure out where the HTV-2 would have crashed down.