High-Powered Laser Being Installed In 747 Plane; Illuminator Laser Passes Test

By | October 15, 2007 | Satellite News Feed

The high-powered missile-killing laser at the heart of the Airborne Laser (ABL) ballistic missile defense system is being installed in its platform, a highly modified Boeing 747-400F, Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] announced.

Separately, an illuminator laser in the ABL system that tracks enemy missiles in flight was fired repeatedly and successfully, according to Raytheon Co. [RTN].

Northrop said it and its contractor team mates and the Missile Defense Agency have begun re-assembling what Northrop described as the most powerful laser ever built for an airborne environment.

This work will lead to high-power system testing.

Laser integration is underway at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., after the laser was overhauled. Northrop disassembled and inspected the high-energy Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) after the successful conclusion of ground tests in 2005. During those tests, the laser demonstrated repeatability of sufficient power and duration to shoot down a ballistic missile.

ABL is designed to identify an enemy missile at launch and to annihilate it during the initial launch phase, when the missile is most vulnerable, before it is able to spew forth multiple warheads, confusing chaff or decoys.

"ABL, with its future capability to destroy a missile in flight, is a critical and necessary component of an integrated missile defense system," said Alexis Livanos, corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman unit Space Technology. "The high-energy COIL laser beam, traveling at the speed of light, coupled with the operation of the beacon illuminator that is used for atmospheric compensation, are examples of how we are employing Northrop Grumman advanced technologies to defend our nation and its assets."

"The laser’s refurbishment has allowed us to make improvements to increase reliability and to implement lessons learned during the laser’s earlier life in the system integration lab," said Dan Wildt, director of Directed Energy Systems at Northrop Grumman Space Technology. "Due to the enhancements made during refurbishment, we expect the megawatt-class laser to perform even better than demonstrated in the system integration lab during realistic missile shoot down exercises now being planned."

According to Guy Renard, Northrop Grumman ABL program manager, most components within the COIL showed very little degradation after the laser was fired more than 70 times in previous ground tests. Northrop Grumman worked with large and small companies across the nation to complete the detailed inspection, refurbishment and re-delivery of the laser hardware so it will be ready to perform its critical role in missile defense.

Re-assembly of the laser will continue next year and be followed by ground and flight testing of the integrated weapon system, culminating in the shootdown of a boosting missile planned in August 2009.

The Boeing Co. [BA] is the prime contractor, providing the aircraft along with battle management and overall systems integration and testing. Northrop Grumman supplies the missile-killing, high-energy laser, as well as the beacon illuminator laser, which is used to measure beam-distorting atmospheric conditions between the aircraft and the target. Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] provides the beam control/fire control system, which incorporates the beacon illuminator laser and the track illuminator laser, which tracks hostile ballistic missiles.

The ABL will be the first combat aircraft relying entirely upon a directed energy device as a weapon. When operational, the ABL will be an integral part of a layered ballistic missile defense system that includes the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, the only other potential for killing enemy missiles in their boost phases; the sea-based Aegis system; the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system; and the Ground-based Midcourse Missile Defense, or GMD, system.

As for the illuminator system, Raytheon reported it has passed repeated test firings. The solid-state illuminator laser has been fired successfully more than 50 times for periods of up to 90 seconds since in-flight tests began in January, the company reported.

The kilowatt-class illuminator tracks a boosting ballistic missile so it then can be destroyed by the high-energy laser. Raytheon is a major supplier to Lockheed in the ABL program.

"We’re very pleased with the performance of our laser and proud of its role in … missile defense," said Nick Uros, vice president for the Advanced Concepts and Technology group of Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems. "We’ll be watching with keen interest as the test program continues."

The illuminator has been fired more than 900 times since installation on the aircraft for ground tests that began in 2006. It has conducted more than 140 million pulsed laser shots, "a remarkable achievement for high-power solid-state lasers," according to Uros.

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