Airborne laser weapon blasts rocketing missile

US Missile Defense Agency successful in blowing up missile with megawatt laser from a 747

infrared image of the Missile Defense Agency’s Airborne Laser Testbed
After years of preparation, the US Missile Defense Agency this week said it had for the first time blasted a rocketing ballistic missile with a megawatt laser from a modified Boeing 747. 

The Airborne Laser Testbed is a, infrared, megawatt-class, high-energy Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) installed inside a modified Boeing 747-400F aircraft to detect, track and destroy ballistic missiles as they lift off and head toward the atmosphere, a point in flight known as the boost phase, Boeing said. 

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ABL also can pass information on launch sites, target tracks and predicted impact points to other components of the global ballistic missile defense system. Boeing provides the aircraft, battle management and overall systems integration and testing. Northrop Grumman supplies the high-energy laser, and Lockheed Martin provides the beam control/fire control system, according to Boeing. 

According to Northrop, wile ballistic missiles like the one ALTB 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. The basketball-sized beam was focused on the foreign military asset, as the missile is called officially, for only a few seconds before a stress fracture developed, causing the target to catastrophically split into multiple pieces, the company stated. 

According to the agency,  a short-range threat-representative ballistic missile was launched from an at-sea mobile launch platform. Within seconds, the ALTB used onboard sensors to detect the missile and used a low-energy laser to track the target. The ALTB then fired a second low-energy laser to measure and compensate for atmospheric disturbance. Finally, the ALTB fired its megawatt-class High Energy Laser, heating the boosting ballistic missile to critical structural failure. The entire engagement occurred within two minutes of the target missile launch, while its rocket motors were still thrusting. 

According to the defense agency the ALTB works as follows:

1) The Airborne Laser uses six strategically placed infrared sensors to detect the exhaust plume of a boosting missile. 

2) Once a target is detected, a kilowatt-class laser, the Track Illuminator, tracks the missile and determines a precise aiming point. 

3) The Beacon Illuminator, a second kilowatt-class laser, then measures disturbances in the atmosphere, which are corrected by the adaptive optics system to accurately point and focus the high energy laser at its intended target. 

4) Using a very large telescope located in the 747's nose turret, the beam control/fire control system focuses the megawatt laser beam onto a pressurized area of the boosting missile, holding it there until the concentrated energy causes the missile to break apart. 

This was the first directed energy lethal intercept demonstration against a liquid-fuel boosting ballistic missile target from an airborne platform, the agency stated

However, this is not the first airborne laser that has destroyed a target. Boeing and the US Air Force said last year, a C-130H aircraft armed with Boeing's Advanced Tactical Laser blasted a target test vehicle on the ground for the first time.  According to Boeing, the C-130 fired its 12,000lb high-power chemical laser through the beam control system while flying over White Sands Missile Range, N.M. The beam control system acquired the ground target and guided the laser beam to the target. 

Zapping things from the sky is just one use for lasers though.  The Air Force Research Laboratory has successfully tested high data-rate experiments using a free-space optical laser link, to send data across almost 22 miles from about 10,000 ft, in the air and on the ground, without interference at about 3Gbps, the Air Force recently stated

Up to this point, the challenge with free space optical links, which use fiber optics and lasers for transmission have been the turbulence or distortions from temperature differences that cause motion or wind in the atmosphere, the Air Force stated. 

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