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Airborne laser achieves "first light"

17 Nov 2004

All six modules of the giant COIL laser are turned on in unison for the first time.

The Airborne Laser (ABL), a Boeing-747 equipped with a megawatt laser for shooting down ballistic missiles, has reached another milestone in its development -- the demonstration of "first light".

The ground-based test involved simultaneously firing of all six laser modules of the ABL's giant chemical oxygen iodine (COIL) laser for the first time. It took place in a 747-fuselage equipped with the laser at Edwards Air Force Base in California, US. The output power of the laser beam was not disclosed, but the ABL team says that it was "an amount of infrared laser energy that was within pre-test expectations".

The US Missile Defense Agency project has recently come under criticism for being over budget and behind schedule so the "first light" test comes at an important time. Boeing is acting is the system integrator for project, with Lockheed Martin supplying the beam control system and Northrop Grumman the COIL laser.

"'First Light' is an important milestone because it verifies the integration, operation and control of six laser modules and their associated optics in the flight configuration," said Steve Hixson, Northrop Grumman ABL programme manager. "We look forward to completing the laser's current ground test programme, moving it forward into the flight aircraft and integrating it with the beam control/fire control system."

The ultimate plan is to have a flying version that can detect, track and destroy ballistic missiles shortly after they are launched. This involves focusing a beam from the COIL into a basketball-sized spot onto a missile that may be hundreds of miles away.

Oliver Graydon is editor of Optics.org and Opto & Laser Europe magazine.

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