Zapping things from the sky: Airborne Boeing laser blasts ground target

Boeing and the US Air Force today said that they fired Boeing’s Advanced Tactical Laser at a ground target.

The airborne military laser which promises to destroy, damage or disable targets with little to no collateral damage has for the first time actually blown something up.  

Boeing and the US Air Force today said that on Aug. 30, a C-130H aircraft armed with Boeing's Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL) blasted a target test vehicle on the ground for the first time.  Boeing has been developing the ATL since 2008 under an Air Force contract worth up to $30 million. 

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.

The ATL team includes L-3 Communications/Brashear, which made the laser turret, and Hytec which made various structural elements of the weapon system, Boeing said.

The ATL is complementary to the Airborne Laser (ABL), which Boeing is developing for the US Missile Defense Agency to destroy airborne ballistic missiles. The ABL consists of a megawatt-class chemical laser mounted on a Boeing 747-400 freighter aircraft. According to Boeing the C-130H transport, which belongs to the U.S. Air Force's 46th Test Wing, has been modified to carry the high-energy chemical laser and battle management and beam control subsystems.

Both systems employ a Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) that is made by combining a bunch of nasty chemicals - potassium, peroxide, chlorine, iodine and other stuff and then fired at supersonic speeds. According to a post on Wikipedia, each COIL burst produces enough energy in a five-second burst to power a typical American household for more than one hour. The system doesn't so much evaporate its target as melts or damages it rendering it useless. In the case of using it against missiles, the missile is typically weakened and then explodes, experts said. 

The extreme scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said last month they want to develop a laser system the goes way beyond today's opto-mechanical, acousto-optical or electro-optical systems to establish photonic integrated circuit (PIC) technology that will provide video frame rate beam steering speeds, and emit multiple beams with a total output power of 10 W.

DARPA said Opto-mechanical scanning devices are usually bulky and relatively slow, while acousto- and electro-optical technologies utilize devices that while small in size, cannot provide the steering speeds and versatility necessary for many of the advanced applications the military envisions.

Known as the SWEEPER, which is wicked short for short-range wide-field-of-view extremely-agile electronically-steered photonic emitters, DARPA said it expects the new laser technology to draw from phased array concepts that revolutionized RADAR systems.

DARPA said it expects SWEEPER will provide a compact, agile alternative to mechanically steered technology, and recognizing the recent advances in photonic device density, circuit complexity, and performance capabilities in the emerging PIC technology, the SWEEPER program should extend phased array beam steering to the optical domain in the near infra red (0.8 to 2 μm range) by developing PIC technology for optical phased arrays. Such arrays will require the integration of thousand of closely packed optical emitting facets, precise relative electronic phase control of these components, and all within a very small form factor with a total output power of 10W, DARPA stated. 

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