Last night, the military officially entered the age of airborne laser weapons. A large laser mounted to the front of a modified 747 jet successfully detected and shot down a ballistic missile while both were in mid-flight.
The airborne laser program – part Star Wars (the sci-fi flick) and part Star Wars (the Strategic Defense Initiative) – has taken years of work and billions of dollars it get here. But the Pentagon can now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station.
"While ballistic missiles like the one [the Airborne Laser Testbed] destroyed move at speeds of about 4,000 miles per hour, they are no match for a super-heated, high-energy laser beam racing towards it at 670 million mph," says defense contractor Northrop Grumman in a release after announcing the successful test Friday.
Thursday night, a test missile fired from an "at-sea mobile launch platform" – likely a ship or submarine. The 747 detected the liquid-fueled missile and fired three different beams. The first, a low-energy laser, allowed the system to track the missile. Its second blast monitored the atmosphere between the aircraft and the target to better hone the final stage.
Once the system has locked on, it powers up what Boeing calls "the most powerful mobile laser device in the world." The third stage actually involves six laser modules, each the size of a sport-utility vehicle, that fire in unison through a telescope-like lens located at the front of the 747. "When fired through a window in the aircraft's nose turret, it produces enough energy in a 5-second burst to power a typical household for more than one hour," says the US Air Force.
The beam cannot slice through a missile, lightsaber-style, but rather heats up pressurized portions of weapons, rupturing them. In Thursday's test, the airborne laser disabled the test missile two minutes after it launched.
In a massive collaboration, Northrop Grumman constructed the megawatt-class high-energy laser, Lockheed Martin designed the firing system, and Boeing tied everything together with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.
The military has been tinkering with "megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser beam" weapons since 1996. But the Pentagon isn’t happy with the price tag. Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled the original order for a second airborne laser system, but held onto the original aircraft for further experiments.
While yesterday's success encourages missile-shield proponents, the system still needs lots of tuning. A second trial Thursday night hit its target, but stopped firing before crippling the weapon.