High-Tech Fizzle: Laser-Bearing Jumbo Jet Fails to Destroy Test Missile

80beatsBy Joseph CalamiaSep 10, 2010 1:55 AM


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The US Missile Defense Agency's flying laser failed to shoot down a test missile last week. Though in February the same plane successfully destroyed one from 50 miles away, last week's test at a weapons range off California's coast was meant to show the Airborne Laser Testbed's (ALTB) ability to hit missiles at a 100-mile range. The laser and jumbo jet combo successfully tracked the missile and hit it, but stopped short of complete destruction, reports AOL News, which broke the story. The agency had not announced the test, which it had rescheduled several times.

"Program officials will conduct an extensive investigation to determine the cause of the failure to destroy the target missile," the agency said in an e-mailed statement.... [The test], which was designed to demonstrate the weapon's capability at ranges twice the distance of the initial test, had been delayed at least four times due to various glitches, including problems with the target missile. At one point, the test was scheduled to take place at the opening of a major missile defense conference in Huntsville, Ala., but was delayed due to a software glitch. [AOL News]

Even when the plane successfully destroyed its target earlier this year, as 80beats described in February, the program's future was uncertain: Originally meant to be the first of a fleet of airborne lasers, the plane got "testbed" tacked onto its name by the Obama administration to signify its downgrade to experimental status, and the program did not request any additional funding after this year. Besides its failure to destroy missiles, one reason for abandoning the project could be the giant chemical gas laser it uses--perhaps passé given recent research on electric-powered lasers:

The ALTB's chemical gas laser technology is the only practicable method at the moment to generate a multi-megawatt beam, but it has severe disadvantages. The fuels for the raygun are corrosive and toxic, as are the exhaust products, and though details are classified US officials have suggested that a blaster-jumbo needs reloading after only a few "shots". Such a reload, packaged on wheeled carts for use at a forward airbase, would fill two monster C-17 transport planes--indicating that supporting an operational fleet of ABLs would be a huge and expensive effort. [The Register]

Electric lasers might prove a better alternative, The Registerreports--though they too would need more work, since for one they emit more energy in the form of internal heat than they produce in the beam. The Agency may have more to say on the laser plane's future when the project's funding runs out this month.

Sure, its track record is, ahem, uneven. But the plane is a congressional favorite because—hello, flying missile-zapping laser. Just FYI: the money for the Airborne Laser—$146 million, this year alone —runs out this month. Then it flies off into an uncertain future. [Wired]

Related content: 80beats: Laser-Bearing Jumbo Jet Shoots Down Its First Missile 80beats: Military Tests New Missile Defense System: Lasers Mounted on Jumbo Jets 80beats: Could a Deep Sea Snail’s Shell Inspire Next-Gen Body Armor? 80beats: Military Taser Has 200-Foot Range—And Safety Concerns 80beats: Scientists Predict: The 2010s Will Be Freakin’ Awesome—With Lasers

Image: Missile Defense Agency

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