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The Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB) takes flight.  (Source: U.S. Air Force)

The ALTB's powerful megawatt-class High Energy Laser scores a hit on a target in January.  (Source: U.S. Air Force)

A production version of the ALTB may soon be patrolling the skies over battlefields of the future, shooting down enemy missiles.  (Source: U.S. Air Force)
Laser succeeds in tests against a liquid-fuel ballistic missile and a solid fuel rocket

The modern U.S. missile defense program traces its roots back the 1980s and the controversial "Star Wars" program.   While the 1980s program's ambitious goals proved utterly unrealistic for the time, they ignited interest in the topic, and today with modern electronics we are finally on the verge of realizing some of the project's key goals.

The U.S. Air Force just wrapped up testing Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB) against real missiles with dummy payloads.  The results were a resounding success.

The ALTB at 8:44 p.m. (PST), February 11, 2010 fired on a "short-range threat-representative ballistic missile" and destroyed it.  The test began with the missile being detected by sensors and then the use of low-energy lasers to track the target and estimate atmospheric disturbance.  The missile "critical structural failure" while still boosting, after being hammered by the powerful megawatt-class High Energy Laser.

Next, a "solid fuel short-range missile" was launched, approximately an hour after the first launch.  Again, the test passed with flying colors, identical to a similar solid fuel rocket interception that was carried out last week on February 3.

The ALTB is a massive electronics platform loaded aboard a modified Boeing 747-400 Freighter aircraft.  The package features infrared sensors to first detect missiles by homing in to their exhaust plume.  It then employs to kilowatt-class lasers dubbed the Track and Beacon Illuminator, respectively, the first of which tracks the target with precision and the second of which accounts of the atmospheric disturbances.

Then comes the critical step.  A package in the plane's nose underbody uses a very large telescope to focus a megawatt-class COIL beam (generated by an Chemical Iodine Oxygen laser) onto sensitive regions of the target.

The success of the program has raised a great deal of interest in the U.S. Armed Forces for the the platform.  In addition to nuclear missile defense, it could be used as air platform to defend against a variety of traditional missile strikes in arenas across the world.  Firing the missile is somewhat expensive, requiring special chemicals to power the laser, however, it is still much cheaper than traditional missile-based interception technology, and it it has the advantage of being able to score hits on multiple missiles in quick succession.

The Air Force has also been testing a separate, similarly named laser dubbed the "Advanced Tactical Laser", which is mounted aboard a Hercules C-130H test aircraft.  The ATL is designed primarily to strike at ground targets from the air, while the ALTB strikes at missile threats.  The ATL will use a slightly less powerful laser, estimated to be between 100 and 300 kilowatts.  The ATL is also advancing well, scoring hits on moving ground targets.

In both cases, skepticism remains about how successful the designs would be against surprise attacks and evasive targets.  Nonetheless, optimism is high at the Air Force's advanced weapons division following the laser aircrafts' growing body of successful tests.





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