Thursday, a modified Boeing 747 carrying more than seven tons of optics on its nose and a megawatt-class laser in back destroyed a ballistic missile in its first successful test when fired at such a weapon. In a prior test, the laser system successfully "disabled" a truck, but the Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB) can now claim a "lethal" intercept of a liquid-fueled ballistic missile, which is the goal of the program, according to the U.S. Missile Defense agency. The system is the result of a cooperative effort led by Boeing, in partnership with Northrop Grumman (which supplies the laser) and Lockheed Martin (which is developing the fire control system). The aim is to deter enemy missile attacks by disabling the attacking missiles while they are in the boost phase. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency said it hopes similar devices will one day be able to track and attack multiple targets "at the speed of light, at a range of hundreds of kilometers, at a low cost per intercept attempt compared to current technologies."
The test took place just before midnight (eastern time) off of Ventura, Calif., at Point Mugu's Naval Air Warfare Center-Weapons Division Sea Range. The test was not the first in-flight effort. An August test launched from Edwards Air Force Base pitted the system against a missile and showed it could effectively find, track and fire on the target (in that case, with a test laser). In the latest test, the ALTB tracked, targeted and fired, destroying the target, according to the Missile Defense Agency. The ALTB is intended to operate autonomously, above weather and outside the range of most threats while remaining close to enemy territory. It is built to engage and destroy ballistic missiles in their boost phase, over the launch area. A nose-mounted turret with a "1.5m telescope" culminating in a 7-ton mirror that focuses the megawatt-class high-power chemical oxygen iodine laser on missiles.
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