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Nuke-nobbling US laser jumbo fires test beams

First ray-play day for ICBM sky fry guys

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America's famous nuke-toasting aerial ray cannon jumbo jet has at last fired its first energy beams in ground testing, according to prime contractor Boeing. The Airborne Laser (ABL) system is now complete, and testing will progress to a live intercept against a ballistic missile in 2009.

Boeing's concept of an ABL in action

Does coherent light = coherent plans?

"The achievement of 'first light' onboard the Airborne Laser aircraft is a key milestone for the ABL team," said Scott Fancher, Boeing veep i/c missile-nobbling and face of the raygun jumbo project.

"The team did an extraordinary job preparing ABL for this important test. The program remains on track to reach the missile shoot-down demonstration planned."

The idea of the ABL is that fleets of such aircraft might one day patrol the skies, hundreds of kilometres from enemy missile silos in rogue states - off the coast of North Korea, for example, at some point when North Korea had acquired functional intercontinental rockets. Should the evil dictator or whoever decide to rain destruction on the USA (or perhaps its chums), vigilant laser-jumbos would ray the missiles vigorously as they lifted from their pads, still full of volatile, explosive fuels. This would cause them to explode before their payloads could leave the atmosphere (and perhaps separate into multiple warheads, decoys etc in troublesome style).

Nonetheless, the ABL has its critics. The monster ray cannon uses older chemical laser technology, and needs large amounts of dangerous high-pressure fuels. It also has to contain its equally hazardous and corrosive exhaust products. This means that the proposed ABL fleet's logistic requirements would be exotic and troublesome.

Furthermore, in order to hit missiles in their vulnerable boost phase, the planes would need to fly within a few hundred km of the launch sites. This means that many possible launch locations would be out of reach, unless the ABLs intruded on enemy airspace - perhaps precipitating the very attack they seek to prevent.

Still, Boeing are bullish, seeing "first light" as proof that the prototype ABL is now fully assembled. However, the testing process will be a long one. In fact, no beam has yet even left the aircraft: the "first light" was actually shone into an onboard calorimeter and didn't pass through the ABL's distinctive swivelling nose turret.

But the turret and beam-control system has already seen flight tests using a pointing laser before the installation of the main cannon last year. Thus Boeing are happy that it will work as expected, and remain firm that they will blast a for-real ICBM the year after next. Assuming success at that point, the programme will halt for a time, while the Washington corporately makes up its mind about buying further aircraft. ®

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