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The Military Technology

Airborne Laser Successfully Tracks, Hits Missile 287

Posted by Soulskill
from the sweet-zombie-reagan dept.
fructose writes "The Airborne Laser managed to acquire, track, and illuminate a test missile a few days ago. According to the press release, the Boeing plane 'used its infrared sensors to find a target missile launched from San Nicolas Island, Calif ... issued engagement and target location instructions to the beam control/fire control system ... fired its two solid-state illuminator lasers to track the target and ... fired a surrogate high-energy laser at the target, simulating a missile intercept.' The sensors on board the missile confirmed the 'hit.' Michael Rinn, ABL's program director, said, 'Pointing and focusing a laser beam on a target that is rocketing skyward at thousands of miles per hour is no easy task, but the Airborne Laser is uniquely able to do the job.' The next steps will be to test the high-power laser at full strength in flight and do a complete system test later this year. Its success or failure will determine whether the project gets canceled. Looks like the Real Genius fans out there are finally living the dream."
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Airborne Laser Successfully Tracks, Hits Missile

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Looks like the Real Genius fans out there are finally living the dream.

    Eh, it's cool and all, but I'd rather see a house explode with popcorn.

  • Laser tag (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 15, 2009 @10:33AM (#29076165)

    Billion dollar laser tag. They didn't destroy the missile. The missile's laser tag vest scored the hit.

  • How does it aim? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by scribblej (195445) on Saturday August 15, 2009 @10:33AM (#29076169)

    If it uses mirrors of some type to aim the laser "beam", won't missile designers just make the missile housing out of the same reflective material?

    If it does not, how does it get pointed in the right direction fast enough?

    These articles are always so light on the interesting details.

    • by hampton (209113)

      If it does not, how does it get pointed in the right direction fast enough?

      Easy. Think of how fast a shark can turn!

    • by rumith (983060)
      Although it would be difficult to produce a reflective material that could withstand the influence of the atmosphere during launch, it might turn out to be effective to pulverize some substance opaque for that laser frequency around the missile (either by spreading it from auxiliary projectiles launched a second before the real ICBM, or from a device mounted on the top of the missile itself)...
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by YrWrstNtmr (564987)
      If it uses mirrors of some type to aim the laser "beam", won't missile designers just make the missile housing out of the same reflective material?

      Weight and strength. Plus, it's a game of measure/countermeasure. You invent the gun, I invent armor. You invent a stronger gun, I counter with reactive armor.
      Eventually, someone will counter with a missile skin able to defeat this. And then a different type of laser/phaser/deathray will be invented.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by wealthychef (584778)
        it's a game of measure/countermeasure. You invent the gun, I invent armor. You invent a stronger gun, I counter with reactive armor.

        Eventually this is going to stop being the way we work, I hope. We could also think outside the box: put more resources into improving things for other human beings on the planet. Yes, we need to defend ourselves against REAL threats, and the biggest strength the U.S. has at its disposal is the good will we manage to generate by helping others and spreading wealth and pe

        • by tjstork (137384)

          and the biggest strength the U.S. has at its disposal is the good will we manage to generate by helping others and spreading wealth and peace in the world.

          The USA has a trillion dollar trade deficit. Every year the USA buys more junk than it can possibly afford, made all over the world. Look at what the good will this has gotten us. Nothing. Germany and Japan and South Korea and China dump all their junk on the USA, and take our market for granted, but what have they done for us lately?

          Conversely, the B

          • by h4rr4r (612664) on Saturday August 15, 2009 @12:34PM (#29076913)

            Do you work hard to be this wrong?

            The Germans have soldiers in in Afghanistan.

            If you want an oil leaking POS british car feel free to buy one. If I wanted that kinda junk I would by a GM vehicle. I buy cars not from folks I like, but from people who build good cars. This is called capitalism, you should check it out it is a great system.

            You are a fool if you think we have "friends", or if we should give those folks free money. The system you propose is no more than a hair's breadth from corporatism. Your appeals to nationalism are would make Mussolini proud.

            I surely hope this is not the view center-right in this country.

            • There are other ways of helping others than giving bloated and corrupt foreign governments more "foreign aid." I am proposing we actually increase effort to really build wealth and prosperity and freedom around the world. We do this not by making broad policy statements and sticking to dogma (and then fighting those who disagree with it), but by really BEING the kind of country and individual citizens that value freedom and prosperity for the world and not just ourselves.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by wfstanle (1188751)

      Not only mirrors (that occurred to me as well), but have the missile spin so the energy of the laser is spread out over a much larger surface. Spinning would also allow the areas of the missile to cool down somewhat.

      In all military advances in offense, the defense will find a way around it (and vice-versa). It's a cat and mouse game. Look at how Iraq tried to foil GPS guided ordinance, they jammed the GPS signals. I don't know how successful they were but given time they might have been successful.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by rumith (983060)
        Spinning is not likely to be useful: the laser impulse is going to be pretty short. I agree with the rest of your comment, though.
      • by ceoyoyo (59147)

        The GPS jammers each got a nice anti-radiation missile.

      • Re:How does it aim? (Score:5, Informative)

        by j. andrew rogers (774820) on Saturday August 15, 2009 @02:30PM (#29077861)

        Not only mirrors (that occurred to me as well), but have the missile spin so the energy of the laser is spread out over a much larger surface. Spinning would also allow the areas of the missile to cool down somewhat.

        All of the "obvious" solutions like you mention generally will not work. The power levels for the lasers are specifically designed to defeat the known technical counter-measures available to a missile designer. This is why laser weapons have a power rating orders of magnitude greater than is strictly required in most conventional circumstances; they are obviating counter-measures before anyone tries to develop them. Among other things, they are designed to ablate the target faster than you can reflect it or physically spin it.

        This is also the reason a lot of US military research focuses on hyper-kinetic weapons these days; good ones can defeat all plausible molecular armor and even weak ones can defeat all current armor. The power levels of US weapon systems are getting to the point where any passive counter-measure would have to be very exotic.

        In all military advances in offense, the defense will find a way around it (and vice-versa). It's a cat and mouse game. Look at how Iraq tried to foil GPS guided ordinance, they jammed the GPS signals. I don't know how successful they were but given time they might have been successful.

        This is based on a media-created myth. The US has never had GPS-guided weaponry, precisely because GPS can be jammed. Therefore, it would not have done much good to have a GPS jammer beyond attracting the attention of missiles designed to destroy RF emitters.

        The primary guidance mechanism usually mislabeled as "GPS guided" is ultra-precise inertial guidance, which can't be jammed at all short of altering the physics of the universe. These inertial guidance systems can optionally accept micro-corrections from a GPS input, but only within the (classified) error bounds of the inertial system which are already known to be very small. If the GPS signal deviates from the inertial guidance, the GPS is assumed to be compromised and ignored.

        The "GPS-guided weapon" thing is one of many myths about US weapon systems perpetuated by the media. The US never has and never will produce a GPS-guided weapon.

    • by vsny (1213632) on Saturday August 15, 2009 @10:51AM (#29076281)
      They've proven that standard mirror materials will ablate and burn up very quickly with this laser power. Even rotating the missile does not help. The missile body still heats up significantly.

      The laser optics in the airborne laser probably have to be made out of narrow band reflectors which in practice can be made more than 99.999% reflective to a laser. It would be easy to slightly change the laser wavelength and optics (a few nm's perhaps) and the missile would absorb again.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by moosesocks (264553)

      I think this is one of those "why don't they build the entire plane out of the black box material" questions.

      Odds are that high-performance mirror glass is extremely expensive, heavy, and fragile. Similarly, it's difficult to keep something clean when blasting through the atmosphere at 1000mph.

      • by couchslug (175151)

        "Similarly, it's difficult to keep something clean when blasting through the atmosphere at 1000mph."

        Kinda kills the "wino with a rag and Windex" option...

    • by Animaether (411575) on Saturday August 15, 2009 @10:57AM (#29076321) Journal

      you can always track a missile optically, or via infra red, or.. etc.

      as for 'pointed in the right direction fast enough'... see Phalanx and Goalkeeper systems for some seriously-fast-aiming systems. As long as you can track the missile itself*, you can aim something at it. Lasers come with an advantage over the above systems... the laser tends to travel in a fairly straight line, bullets.. not so much. Even with atmospheric distortions, you should get much better aim with a laser than with bullets.

      * As for tracking a missile - keep in mind that this system is intended to be used from some distance. Tracking a missile going 'thousands of miles per hour' just means having to rotate the system (fractions) of degrees. Think of regular ol' human camera operators tracking the space shuttle, which goes much faster than a typical missile, and having no problems doing so. It becomes easier the further away it is, in fact. (well, easiest is when it's still sitting on the launch pad, but you get the idea.)

    • won't missile designers just make the missile housing out of the same reflective material?

      Free electron lasers, I think, can actually have their frequency tuned. It's like Star Trek. The Borg put up a shield, the Enterprise changes its phaser frequency.... blammo.

    • f it uses mirrors of some type to aim the laser "beam", won't missile designers just make the missile housing out of the same reflective material?

      Well, no. First, high-energy mirrors are fragile things. The reflective surface is very thin, and is kept very clean. Get some crud on it, that crud absorbs in the incident energy, the mirror fails. How are you going to coat a missile body, which needs must be exposed to the environment, with this fragile coating and still expect it to be a high-energy mirror?

  • WHile I am a BIG believer in Gates(robert, not bill), I think that his idea to kill ABL was dead wrong. If anything, we should be building these faster. These are absolutely ideal for dealing the current and future situation. Now, we just have to learn to quit allowing the specs flowing to other countries.
    • WHile I am a BIG believer in Gates(robert, not bill), I think that his idea to kill ABL was dead wrong. If anything, we should be building these faster.

      Like these lasers are going to help prevent a smuggled bomb from being detonated in LA Harbor. And the US needs another treaty to break, well Bush already broke the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

      Falcon

  • Being able to aim a laser turret at moving object for a few seconds is impresive, but shooting it down another beast altogether. Protective coating from dense material or ablative coating for missile is pretty easy to make, all you really need is another booster stage to compensate for extra mass. Making missile spin to reflect heat better is also pretty simple. Moore's law makes computational power necessary to spin a missile faster, easyer then makeing a more powerfull laser. Air borne laser is also infra
  • by copponex (13876) on Saturday August 15, 2009 @10:52AM (#29076289) Homepage

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/star-wars-fake-fooled-the-world-1461979.html [independent.co.uk]

    I see a press release from the people who claim to have pulled it off... which doesn't mean a thing.

  • Time to buy lots of popcorn and tinfoil. You're in for it now Hathaway; hope you're house is insured.
    -
    There. Now you've had your nod to 'Real Genius'. ;)

  • I'm here to tell you I'm not living the dream until I see scum-sucking bad guys brought down from SPACE, preferably vaporized in their lawn chairs while their horrified guests look on in awe.
    • Real Genius laser was turret mounted in a B1 bomber bay. Did you even watch the movie?

      Furthermore, Val Kilmer's character had it all wrong. Assassinations are way better than wars. In wars, the peasants who join the armies do all the dying, while in assassinations, only the assholes who command the wars get killed, because it's too expensive to assassinate each member of an opposing army individually.

  • by nimbius (983462) on Saturday August 15, 2009 @10:59AM (#29076325) Homepage
    this technology is totally useless in its current state. high power flying lasers will never find a use without a high power flying shark to combine it with.
  • I mean the technical idea behind the laser which I've always wondered if it would work. In the movie, some (Caltech?) students take an optically pumped up gas (like the gas used in a carbon dioxide or neon laser I suppose) and freeze it into a solid while it is still optically pumped up. Since the now solid gas is still optically pumped up and is many many times denser than a gas, they achieve a corresponding increase in the power density which allows a small rod of it to pop a lot of popcorn. Sure beats

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Disclaimer: IANAP(hysicist)

      If I remember the laws of thermodynamics from my physics courses correctly, things at lower temperatures have lower amount of energy. Things are frozen by taking away the matter's energy at the molecular level. If you "pump up" some matter (i.e. give it lots of energy or make it hot) then the effect of pumping it up is negated when the matter is frozen, since you need to remove all the energy.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Legendre (634519)
      The quantum processes of state inversion, pumping electrons, etc. are all done assuming 0 K temperature already.
  • coat the missle in a layer of popcorn kernels, with a wrap of aluminum foil.
  • by nysus (162232) on Saturday August 15, 2009 @11:09AM (#29076373)

    Wouldn't Boeing have a lot of incentive to hype this to ensure that the contract got renewed for further research? It's possible that they set the bar for success so low and/or made the experiment so contrived that they couldn't help but achieve it.

  • Several people talk about counter measures.

    They cost money to do. A lot of money.

    More importantly, such as system provides immunity to all the old out dated missiles.

    We are no longer facing a gigantic super-power threat. Russia and China are friendly, (and Germany and Japan are some of our best friends).

    Our enemeis now a days are Terrorists

    They are not known for scientific innovation. They are not known for expensive equipment. They make do with what they have. They do suicide missions becaus

    • Re:Countermeasures (Score:4, Insightful)

      by nysus (162232) on Saturday August 15, 2009 @11:28AM (#29076487)

      So how will this anti-ICBM technology be used against a terrorist carrying these suitcase a-bombs that are said to exist?

      The problem is, ss soon as we get a 100% effective missile shield, enemies will find a way to deliver nuclear armaments. It wouldn't even be that hard. They can just park a ship off a Manhattan and light one off if they wanted to.

      This whole idea of shooting down missiles is a waste of fucking time and money. If we gave the money we were spending on this bullshit to the countries to foster good will, we'd be a lot better off.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by tjstork (137384)

        They can just park a ship off a Manhattan and light one off if they wanted to.

        Ships move at 20-30mph. Ballistic missiles move at 15,000mph +. If we make it so that our enemies have to get a ship into one our harbors, it becomes a much simpler problem. We would need to have more Coast Guard people to basically board every ship, with neutron detectors, but, its something we can do. We can track ships as they are approaching the USA, track them as they leave ports, follow them, and pretty much monitor eve

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by PPH (736903)

          We can track ships as they are approaching the USA, track them as they leave ports, follow them, and pretty much monitor every boat on the ocean.

          We can? [bbc.co.uk]

      • by bendodge (998616)

        Terrorists aren't the real threat. The old powers are. Russia and China have no great love for the US, and they have real missiles. I applaud whichever far-thinking generals are pushing these programs.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      When the terrorists blow up Los Angeles, they aren't going to be using an ICBM. They're going to be floating a bomb into the harbor on a container ship. Your fancy airborn lasers will be useless.

      But don't let that stop you from wasting billions of dollars on this. It's just all the sooner China takes over as the world's primary superpower.

      • by tjstork (137384)

        When the terrorists blow up Los Angeles, they aren't going to be using an ICBM. They're going to be floating a bomb into the harbor on a container ship. Your fancy airborn lasers will be useless.

        Will they?

        I mean, everyone seems to think that loading a ship full of explosives is some unstoppable defense, yet, we certainly have the means to board, inspect, and if necessary, sink pretty much any ship.

        • by PPH (736903)

          If we know which ships to stop.

          The occasional container load of immigrants has made it here. What's to stop them from loading up a bomb?

          Worse yet, they'll stash one in an old freighter and pile bails of pot on top of it. If they make it to port, they can sell the dope and fund future operations. If the Coast Guard seizes the boat, the first thing they do is tow it into port for the obligatory press briefing on the big bust. The bomb goes off when the network cameras are rolling.

        • by h4rr4r (612664)

          And how will you detect this cargo ship that has one nuke in one container at the bottom of the stack?

          Unless you work for Boeing it should be clear that this system is a just a handout to Boeing.

      • by Alphanos (596595)

        If any official claims this is to stop terrorist attacks, they're lying. This type of tech is to break the "mutually" part out of MAD. Once the US can confidently stop ICBMs 100% of the time with a mass-produced set of these things, it need not worry any longer about who it can threaten.

    • This innovation might delay their attack enough for us to stop them.

      It might slow terrorists down if they plan to launch a missile and not smuggle a bomb into LA harbor. Guess which method terrorists are likely to use, a method that requires an expensive rocket as well as a warhead, or one where most of the cost is in making a bomb?

      Falcon

  • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Saturday August 15, 2009 @11:15AM (#29076399)

    Looks like the Real Genius [wikiquote.org] fans out there are finally living the dream.

    Sigh. Not until I can hammer a six inch spike through a board with my penis.

    • by couchslug (175151)

      "Sigh. Not until I can hammer a six inch spike through a board with my penis."

      You can do it! Trust me.

      Simply strike the opposite surface of the penis with a large hammer in order to drive the spike.
      The penis will cushion the spike and leave a nice polished surface when you are done.

      "

  • Airborne laser? Pffffffffff, just toys. What's needed is a real Death Star.
    • by iggymanz (596061)

      aahhh, airborne starfish with frickin' lasers attached to their heads! mwuhahahahaha.

  • Will take a while to achieve, but I'm somewhat curious if materials with negative refractions still vaporize if hit by a powerful laser at the frequency at which the material exhibits that quality.

  • Ok, a mirror won't work because it's not perfect and will quickly ablate, at which point the laser makes a hole in the missile even if it takes a second or two longer.

    But what if you make a missile covered with retroreflectors that reflect that 90% or whatever a mirror can manage, but back at the laser itself?

    Could an anti-laser missile be developed, which instead of a payload has several layers of retroreflectors to try to make the laser fry itself?

  • by aepervius (535155) on Saturday August 15, 2009 @12:04PM (#29076705)
    Beside suitcase bomb, jsut multiply the number of missile or decoy with a "heat" source in it or whatever.

    Can you imagine the energy requirement and the number of laser necessary to deflect a full scale attack of say, the russian ? Even if only 50% of the missile go through (and from seeing the dfficulty of development I am being generous) , your country is about as parking-lotted as it can be.
    • by PPH (736903)

      The ABL isn't intended to knock down warheads in mid flight. It goes after missiles during the boost phase. That's when they can get the laser relatively close to the target, its easy to spot (from the propulsion IR signature) and it hasn't released decoys yet.

      What I'm wondering is whether the full power tests will be conducted against targets equipped with ablative or reflective coatings. Or worse yet; corner reflectors.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by hcdejong (561314)

      Actually, this is one of the reasons laser weapons are being developed. It's much cheaper to shoot lasers at a bunch of decoys instead of missiles costing >1e6$ apiece.

      Also, weapons like the ABL can be used to shoot at missiles during the boost phase, before decoys can be deployed.

      And, the best defence against a full scale nuclear attack by the Russians is deterrence. The ABL is meant more for use against tinpot dictators firing Scuds.

  • ABL is certainly a cool concept but the problem is they are working on the wrong kind of laser. Since the ABL project has started, free electron lasers have made way more progress than the chemical laser used in the ABL. With a free electron laser, you don't have to haul around all the nasty chemicals, can have more shots, more power for the beam and even offers the hope of adjusting the beam frequency. I'm not one to really want to kill a defense project, but, if I were in charge, I would junk the chemi

  • So basically they have a system that must be on station when the missile is launched and can be defeated by launching more than 1 missile.

    The Russians or Chinese would just use mobile launchers and launch 10+ ICBMs at one time, or better yet just launch from a submarine out in the middle of nowhere in the Atlantic.

    If any useless program needs to be canceled this is it.

  • I think this will be a fantastic use for transparent aluminum. If you can't see the thing, you can't shoot it down. Even if you could see it (to aim at), it won't absorb the energy from the laser too much.

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