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Space Based Laser Weapons

Called the Space-Based Laser Integrated Flight Experiment, the hardware is being eyed to fly into orbit in 2012 and carry out tests for about three years.

“We’re looking at a limited threat ... a few ballistic missiles targetedat the United States .”

The Air Force has teamed up with a trio of aerospace giants—Boeing, Lockheed Martin and TRW—to design, develop and conduct the space experiment.

The test will involve a megawatt-class chemical laser in space, making use of a large, multi-segmented mirror that unfurls and locks into place. It would create a 13-foot (4-meter) diameter reflecting surface.

Beam control equipment then would pinpoint test targets and the system then would blast objects with a powerful burst of laser light.

The entire spacecraft would tip the scales at between 45,000 and 50,000 pounds (20,455 and 22,700 kilograms).

The now-under-development heavy-lift Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle would boost the fight experiment to space.

The U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles , California will manage the program.

“The idea of a space-based laser has been around since 1977. Since then, a lot of technology has matured. We believe we’re at the point where we can now tackle the big challenge of integrating that technology together and flying it in space,” said Air Force Major Arnie Streland, head of Space-Based Laser Acquisition, Planning and Management in Los Angeles .

The Reagan administration’s Cold War-era Strategic Defense Initiative was pursued to create a high-tech shield to thwart a massive wave of incoming ballistic missiles launched from the Soviet Union .

Today, it’s a different world.

“We’re looking at a limited threat...a few ballistic missiles targeted at the United States ,” Streland told SPACE.com at the 16th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs , sponsored by the Space Foundation. (Editor’s note: SPACE.com is the official web sponsor of the event.)

“Also, the technology has matured a lot and there have been key breakthroughs,” he said.

Those breakthroughs include optics that don’t need to be kept supercold, which greatly decreases the weight and complexity of a laser battle station.

Less weight also means use of cheaper launchers to boost a less-costly laser system into orbit, he said.

Streland said the proof-of-concept of the experiment is destroying a dummy missile via a laser beam as the rocket arcs through space, high above the Earth.

During the three-year shake out of hardware other testing may be tried, such as demonstrating space surveillance concepts or perhaps learning how to spot chemical warfare aerosols in Earth’s atmosphere.

A fully deployed operational network of laser battle stations, if given a technological and political go-ahead, could involve a constellation of anywhere between 20 to 30 spacecraft to ensure global coverage, Streland said.

“But that’s a long way in the future to come up with a definite number right now,” he said.

The cost of such a system has not been estimated.

“We are not building an operational system, nor a prototype to an operational system. This is an experiment so we can prove the technology...to provide the technical foundation if a decision is made to deploy an operational system,” Streland said.

If a go-ahead were given, the first launch of an operational system might take place in 2020, followed by several years of launches to orbit a full constellation of spacecraft around Earth.

T.I. Weintraub, a technical staff member of Lockheed Martin Management & Data Systems, said the nation is technologically ready to move forward on space-based laser defense.

“We can probably have a system flying within five years. Much of the technology was demonstrated back in the Reagan years, every bit of it. My own view is that the policy side is a bigger problem than the technical side,” he said.

To confirm that, one only had to walk outside the halls of the Space Foundation meeting at The Broadmoor hotel in Colorado Springs .

Banner-waving protesters from the local contingent of Citizens for Peace in Space handed out leaflets, denouncing any plans of antiballistic missile defense systems stationed in space.

Weintraub said the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) treaty specifically prohibits any weapons platforms in space.

However, the actual threat of missile attack on the United States from a rogue nation is probably greater today than it was in the Cold War era.

Furthermore, the public appears to be under a false sense of security, wrongly believing that antimissile defense systems are already in place, he said.

Missile proliferation, plutonium theft and the increasing number of nuclear-capable nations adds up to a greater threat than in years past, Weintraub said.

The prospect of a internationally created space-based laser system is also possible, much like the cooperation between nations that is leading to construction of the International Space Station, Weintraub said.

“Everybody would throw money at the problem,” Weintraub said, “to build a global umbrella.”