Death Ray -- or Accounting Shift?


The headline is pretty spooky: "Administration Conducting Research Into Laser Weapon." And the meat of the story, on the Starfire Optical Range's plan to start lighting up satellites, can probably best be described as:

Check it out:The Bush administration is seeking to develop a powerful ground-based laser weapon that would use beams of concentrated light to destroy enemy satellites in orbit.Domes_big.jpgThe largely secret project, parts of which have been made public through Air Force budget documents submitted to Congress in February, is part of a wide-ranging effort to develop space weapons, both defensive and offensiveThe laser research would take advantage of an optical technique that uses sensors, computers and flexible mirrors to counteract the atmospheric turbulence that seems to make stars twinkle.The weapon would essentially reverse that process, shooting focused beams of light upward with great clarity and force.Which is all true to a point. Gimme a sec to explain.The Starfire range relies on some of the only useful technology to emerge from the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or Star Wars. As Ann Finkbeiner tells the story, in the early 1980s, Air Force scientists looked into the question of correcting for atmospheric turbulence to image Soviet spy satellites. They had the idea that to shine a laser against a layer of sodium in the mesosphere (essentially the last layer of the earth's atmosphere) in order to measure the distortion from the ground up.Measuring the atmospheric distortion allows a scientist to deform her telescope producing a clear picture. It's called adaptive optics. Think of it as looking at yourself in a funhouse mirror with glasses that are just as screwy, but precisely so in order to offset the effect of the mirror. (The pretty picture accompanying the NYT story does a good job of explaining.)The Starfire Optical Range uses adaptive optics, mostly, to take pretty pictures of stars and the like (click here for a little astro-porn from SOR). But the same skill-set is also damn handy if you want to fire a laser through the atmosphere to fry a satellite or ballistic missile.Hence, our little problem here.So, am I little bothered that the Air Force is funding "atmospheric compensation/beam control experiments for application including antisatellite weapons"? Yup. "Precision aimpoint stabilization through turbulence"? That can't be good. Ditto placing the whole thing under "Advanced Weapons Technology." Unless UBL is hanging out on a space station, I can think of better ways to use the cash.On the other hand, the NYT's science scribe, Bill Broad, isn't being fair when he calls the research a "largely secret project", accuses the Bush Administration of "seeking to develop a powerful ground-based laser weapon that would use beams of concentrated light to destroy enemy satellites in orbit" or relegates the useful applications of adaptive optics to a couple of paragraphs near the end of the story.This is important technology research, largely conducted in the open. As Broad notes, "previously, the laser work resided in a budget category that paid for a wide variety of space efforts." What's happened here, mostly, is an accounting shift. Adaptive optics can be used for good or ill, depending on our collective wisdom as a people. There is no policy fix for stupid.Broad is being particularly unfair to both the Air Force and critics of this particular experiment, like me, by giving the last word to an activist group warning that, if the experiment is conducted, "the barrier to weapons in space will have been destroyed."I'd rather the Air Force not do the experiment, but this is not a death ray. In fact, other than some vague, unfocused research, the military isn't really in the death ray business anymore. Well, there is the Airborne Laser, but that is a whole other story.-- Jeffrey LewisUPDATE 4:01 PM: You wanna talk real laser weapons? some of the most interesting directed energy work was outlined in Noah's article in Popular Science, "Attack at the Speed of Light," which showcases efforts by two erstwhile SDI scientsists, now competing to build much smaller lasers to tackle practical missions like shooting down mortars.UPDATE 6:24 PM: For a completely different take, check out this paper from the Center for Defense Information.UPDATE 05/04/06 10:42 AM: John Fleck has a great follow-up to the Starfire flap in today's Albuquerque Journal.
Hitchens explained that there long has been a sort of "gentleman's agreement" among nations not to mess with one another's satellites.The reason is rooted in the complex calculus of nuclear deterrence. A nation with the ability to watch for enemy missile launches is less likely to accidentally start a nuclear war, she explained...Vansuch said next year's proposed test would be the first time the Starfire technology has been used to focus an outgoing laser.The test would be no death ray, but rather a very low power experiment. "The basic physics is what we're after," Vansuch said.
(Big ups: Larry Ahrens)
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