After decades of bloated promises, busted budgets, and missed deadlines, the troubled Airborne Laser project finally got a bit of good news yesterday.The program's goal is to mount a high-energy, chemical laser onto a 747 jet, so it can shoot down incoming missiles. But whether such a laser would ever work remained very much an open question. On Thursday, some answers emerged, when "Northrop Grumman Corp. engineers working in secrecy at Edwards Air Force Base successfully tested" the laser, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Although the laser test barely lasted a second, it marked the first time that [this] chemical laser had created a beam of light. Over the next few months, engineers hope to increase the duration and energy of the laser's beam so it could shoot down a ballistic missile from more than 200 miles away..."The important thing is we got the photons, which proves the laser works," said Ken Englade of the agency's Airborne Laser program. "It came at a very good time, because people were saying it wasn't going to work.""This is the best news they've had in a very long time," said Philip Coyle, a former Pentagon chief for testing and a critic of missile defense systems. "They still have a long way to go, but this is a big milestone."U.S. military officials have been trying to develop a laser powerful enough to shoot down a missile from a long distance but compact enough to fit in an aircraft. Until this week, laser beams capable of destroying objects from a distance could be generated only using chambers that would fill a 15-story building.The laser beam generated Wednesday came from a mixture of chemicals encased in modules about the size of six Chevy Suburbans, installed in the fuselage of a 747.After further ground tests of this chemical oxygen-iodine laser, it will be reinstalled in a 747 jet that has been modified with a laser-firing turret.The Airborne Laser is one of several Pentagon ray gun efforts moving ahead. In December, the Joint High Power Solid State Laser program "is slated to conduct laboratory demonstrations" of three electrically-driven, 25-kilowatt solid-state lasers, Aerospace Daily notes. By 2008, the Army hopes to start testing the "Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser, designed to destroy artillery shells, mortars, rockets and unmanned aerial vehicles."