Pentagon Conducts Star Wars Experiment In Space
Dec. 15, 1987
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Pentagon conducted a ''Star Wars'' experiment early this week demonstrating for the first time that lasers and other high-powered electrical devices can be operated in space without heavy shielding or insulation, officials said Tuesday.
The finding means Star Wars weaponry could be deployed in space without including thousands of pounds of insulating material, said Dr. James A. Ionson, the director of innovative science and technology for the Pentagon's Strategic Defense Initiative Organization.
Maj. Alan Freitag, a spokesman for the Strategic Defense Initiative, said the experiment was conducted Sunday night with the launch of a small rocket from the NASA Flight Facility at Wallops Island, Va.
The 60-foot rocket was launched at 8:45 p.m. on Sunday and carried a special test payload up to an altitude of about 250 miles during its 10-minute flight.
''Based on preliminary data, the test was a success,'' Frietag added. ''Our predictions were borne out.''
According to Freitag and Ionson, the experiment was conducted ''to answer fundamental questions regarding the operation of unusually high electric power in space.''
Shortly after launch, the shroud or nose cone peeled away, allowing two bowling-ball size probes to extend. The two probes remained attached to the rocket and locked into a position about 39 inches apart. They were then alternately charged with high amounts of electrical power produced by batteries.
The goal of the experiment was to see if the electrical charge would arc from one probe to the other. That phenomenon is common in the atmosphere on the earth's surface without special insulation but had never been tested in space with such high voltages - in this case, up to 44,000 volts.
''In fact, there was no arcing,'' said Ionson. ''We found, as we had predicted, that space is a good insulator in and of itself. The thin plasma (of ions and electrons) that exists in space has a tremendous insulating characteristic.
''That means you don't have to carry tons of insulating material into space for use on high-powered electrical platforms.''
Ionson and Freitag said the electrical surges produced during the experiment ''were thousands of times more than have ever been tested in space.''
While any military laser deployed in space would require much more power, the essential principle of plasma acting as an insulator has now been demonstrated, the two added.
The Star Wars program, known formally as the Strategic Defense Initiative, is an effort to develop lasers and other exotic weapons that could be deployed on earth and in space to automatically shoot down nuclear ballistic missiles.
The experiment was designed under a Pentagon contract by Utah State University. Including the payload and rocket, which was obtained from NASA, the experiment cost roughly $2.5 million, Freitag said.
A second experiment has already been scheduled in February 1989 ''to operate power components designed to be exposed to the space vacuum,'' the spokesman added.