The Airborne Laser Test Bed is an experimental system being developed by the Department of defence, combining a high-energy Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) with a Boeing 747 aircraft for shooting down missiles while they are still launching.
The ABLTB first employs six infrared sensors to scan for and detect the exhaust plume of a boosting missile. Then, three low-power tracking lasers calculate the projectile’s course, speed and target. After that, a kilowatt solid state laser known as the Track Illuminator determines a precise point for the laser to aim for. Then the Beacon Illuminator, another kilowatt SSL, measures the atmospheric disturbance around the missile — these disturbances reduce the primary laser’s effectiveness — and corrects for it using an adaptive optics system. This entire process takes less than 12 seconds.
The primary COIL laser, the one that does the frying, is focused by the beam control system mounted on the plane’s nose cone. The COIL is made from six interconnected, 3000kg modules — each roughly the size of a 4WD. The laser is so large that a five-second burst could power a house for an hour, yet it doesn’t actually burn through the missile. Instead, it subtly heats the missile’s skin which weakens it, making it more susceptible to high-speed structural failure.
And what does the laser eat to generate all that heat? A chemical fuel similar to rocket propellant. The Airborne Laser program was originally developed by the US Air Force starting in 1996, though the first test flight didn’t get off the ground until 2002 and has only started actually blowing things out of the sky the past February.
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