Chemical Laser Tested Successfully
WASHINGTON (AP) _ A high-power chemical laser developed for the ″Star Wars″ program has been successfully tested for the first time in a vacuum chamber simulating the conditions of space, the Pentagon said Monday.
The test, described as ″a major milestone″ by the Defense Department, was conducted Friday at a special facility in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
While the so-called Alpha laser generated a laser beam for only one-fifth of a second, the initial ″first light″ test was sufficient to verify the theoretical calculations that were made in designing the device, said Neil Griff, the program manager for chemical lasers with the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization.
The Alpha device has long been described as the Pentagon’s most promising technology for a small, lightweight laser that could be built with enough power to operate as a weapon in space.
″This is the first time we have demonstrated a laser that we believe is scaleable (in power) to meet SDI (Star Wars) requirements,″ Griff added Monday.
He declined to disclose at what power levels the laser operated in Friday’s test, saying that the information was classified. But he agreed that the power levels used in the experiment were ″considerably smaller″ than what would be needed for an orbiting space weapon.
The Star Wars program, known formally as the Strategic Defense Initiative, is a research effort to develop laser and other types of exotic weapons that could be deployed in space and on the ground to automatically shoot down nuclear missiles fired at the United States or its allies.
On the laser research front, the Pentagon also is experimenting with another chemical laser known as MIRACL. That device, however, is considered more appropriate for shooting laser light through the atmosphere from ground bases and is described as too inefficient for use in space.
The Alpha laser has been under study for almost a decade. The Pentagon already has invested about $250 million in the device’s design and construction and in building the special test facilities needed to replicate the vacuum of space.
The laser is constructed primarily of aluminum, making it relatively light and compact, and draws its energy from the combustion of the gasses hydrogen and fluouride. It is thought to have roughly 2 million watts of power.
In October 1987, the Pentagon awarded a contract to the Martin Marietta Corp., asking it to assess the possibility of conducting experiments in space with Alpha. In the meantime, however, TRW Inc., which built the device, has been preparing for the first ground tests.
The experiment performed Friday was originally scheduled a year ago but had to be postponed because of a small fire that damaged the vacuum chamber. A series of technical problems and financing cutbacks then added up to a year’s delay.
″This test represents the culmination of several years of research that began before the creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization in 1984,″ the Pentagon said in a statement.
″For the first time, the Alpha chemical laser produced a high-power beam, verifying that all subsystems were operating correctly. During the coming months, more extensive tests of the Alpha laser are planned to thoroughly analyze beam characteristics.″