Physical Science Blog

What’s Next For The Laser Plane?

Airborne laser successfully shoots down ballistic missile

February 13, 2010

Shortly after a ballistic missile was launched from a floating platform off the California coast at 8:44 p.m. on February 11, 2010, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency destroyed it with nothing but photons.

It was such a simple concept – put enough energy (in the form of light) on to a missile until it destroys itself. Yet it took billions of dollars and over a decade to make this vision a reality. Considering the complexity of the system and the number of contractors involved in the program, it’s not much of a surprise.

Still, the military had hoped to start building a fleet of powerful flying Laser Planes following a successful shootdown. Recent budget cuts on the program make this scenario unlikely, as the Airborne Laser becomes an Airborne Laser Testbed.

So what does it mean to be a Testbed?  More than just another extraneous acronym change, the newly dubbed ALTB program – formerly ABL – will focus on figuring out just exactly what these flying photons are capable of.

Of course, testing is an essential part of getting a Laser Plane to work. As the program got nearer to destroying an actual, real-life missile, a test run was done on a stand-in missile. The video below shows the laser “engaging” with something called MARTI – the Missile Alternative Range Target Instrumentation (MARTI) system.

MARTI, according to The Aerospace Corporation’s website, is essentially a missile “blank” decked out with high-tech sensors instead of explosives. The surrogate missile collects all kinds of data about the ALTB, like veryifying the wavelength of its lasers.

You see, there is more than one laser aboard the military’s “highly modified” Boeing 747. The diagram below shows some of the key subsystems:

[Credit: Boeing Image]

[Credit: Boeing Image]

High Energy Laser Modules (6)These are the Chemical Oxygen Iodine Lasers (COIL) made by Northrop Grumman that provide the megawatt-class light to destroy the missile. There are 6 modules working in concert in this system.

Solid-State Illuminator Lasers (2) : These are “all electric” lasers that don’t need nasty chemicals to operate like the COIL. They are lower power lasers. The Track Illuminator Laser made by Raytheon tracks the missile as it flies through the air. The Beacon Illuminator Laser, made by Northrop Grumman, helps subtract distortions the atmosphere puts on the high power beam. The military hopes to someday have solid state lasers that are powerful enough to act as the High Energy Laser Modules. State-of-the-art solid state lasers are in the 100 kilowatt class range, and have a ways to go before reaching megawatts.

Separation Bulkhead: Because someone has to fly the plane and fire the laser, it’s important to have a robust bulkhead separating the COIL from the humans operating it. Brave souls!

Battle Management: The “brains” of the Laser Plane

Beam Control System: Built by Lockheed Martin, the BCS directs the Solid-State Illuminator Lasers with the High Energy Laser Modules to the missile

Active Ranging System: Provides early detection of the missile

Nose-Mounted Turret: This is an incredible piece of glass – and feat of mechanical engineering. See it in action below:

It’s anybody’s guess what tests MDA will cook up for the ALTB next.

Note: The author is an employee of Lockheed Martin. This posting is her own and does not necessarily represent Lockheed Martin’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

About the Author

Olivia Koski

Olivia Koski was born in the desert and raised in the mountains. After studying physics in college, she earned a living manipulating light for an aerospace company. She abandoned saguaros, pine trees and lasers for the skyscrapers of New York City, where she is studying the fine art of manipulating words, sound and images as a journalist. Visit her website at or follow her on Twitter at



Mark Kukla says:

Well-written article, Ms. Koski. It’s so nice to see that it was a successful shoot-down… truly an awesome system. The genie is out of the bottle, now – one day, it will be pursued again – I’m sure of that. I just can’t predict when…

Epie Sophi says:

Is this a legitimate test? Given the size of the signature of the 747, the target in the video would have to be very very close
Given there is a video with a laser beam you shouldn’t be able to see at 1.38 microns… we have no evidence
that anything happened,
Was the target outfitted with a cooperative beacon?The range and engagement angle are crucial. Given the spot size in the article, that also means that the target was very close range. This short range fits with the angular separation seen in the video. At short range, the adaptive optics is not tested, and therefore the test has no bearing on whether the ABL would function at operational ranges. . Speaking of the video, what sensor did they use to detect the 1.38 micron beam? It falls outside of the standard FLIR windows. In fact, how does one see a laser beam that well at angles normal to the propagation? For it to be that visible there would have to be either a tremendous amount of scattering or heating of the atmosphere. Both effects at that level would spell doom for operating at real ranges. Assuming that the video is real, of course …

Katie Peek says:

Strong laser beams, like those used on laser guide star adaptive optics systems at astronomical observatories, are visible at angles normal to the propagation, all the way up to the sodium layer at 90 km. The atmosphere provides plenty of material for scattering.

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