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“Star Wars” Writ Small

Laser defense systems will be coming to fighter jets.
January 25, 2013

By now you probably heard the massive “Star Wars” news today: word that J.J. Abrams will be helming Episode VII of the beloved sci-fi series hit the Internet with the force of a Category Five hurricane (see “What the ‘Star Wars’ Sale Means for Tech Education”).

But all the fanfare may drown out an even more remarkable piece of “Star Wars”-related news: the fact that some technology worthy of the series (and similar to Reagan’s anti-missile vision that drew its nickname from it) will soon become a reality.

Jesus Diaz over at Gizmodo has the story: The United States Navy and Air Force will be installing “liquid-cooled, solid-state lasers” in combat airplanes. Why? Why not! But if you insist on utility: much like the Reagan-era “Star Wars” program, these lasers will offer a line of defense, shooting down missiles and rockets targeted at the planes. Firing tests will happen as soon as next year.

DARPA is calling this program the High Energy Laser Area Defense System, or HELLADS for short. DARPA says that these lasers will be ten times smaller and lighter than current lasers that pack the same punch (150 kilowatts), “enabling integration onto tactical aircraft.” Ultimately the goal is to have these systems weigh less than five kilograms per kilowatt.

Of course, it’s no secret that DARPA’s had its eye on compact lasers for some time. The agency reported on a “key milestone” in that quest back in 2011, with the first successful testing of a single laser module in a lab. But in a year and a half, we’ve come much closer to implementation.

HELLADS is only one of at least two laser projects the agency’s funding and talking about. DARPA has also been giving support to Lockheed Martin for something called the Aero-Adaptive/Aero-Optic Beam Control program. As AviationWeek explains, that program is about allowing a high-speed fighter to “shoot aft and sidewards through the turbulent flowfield behind the laser turret.” DARPA has a rather technical way of saying that with current laser systems, you can only shoot ahead: “High-energy laser systems are currently limited to a forward field of regard due to turbulent density fluctuations in the aft sector of the turret that severely degrade the laser beam fluence on target.”

I can only imagine, having never been in a fighter jet under fire, but if you have ground-to-air missles approaching you from the rear, I’d wager you’d feel strongly about not having your fluence degraded.

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