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Laser system zaps missile into mincemeat

By Stephen Handelman
Popular Science
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(PopSci.comexternal link) -- Shoulder-fired missiles, referred to in military-speak as MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems) are showing up on the black market more and more these days and U.S. officials are becoming increasingly concerned about their risk to commercial aircraft.

As a result the Department of Homeland Security is nearly doubling its spending on counter-measure research to $110 million this year.

One particularly notable technology under consideration is a laser called Skyguard that can make mincemeat out of a missile in a matter of seconds, according to its developer, defense contractor Northrop Grumman, which adapted the laser from a larger militarized version.

Packed inside a unit the size of three school buses and stationed close to the runways, Skyguard is essentially a giant laser gun with brains. It focuses a powerful energy beam with pinpoint accuracy on a missile, heating up the explosives inside to make them detonate before reaching their target.

Of course, it comes with a hefty price tag. Each unit costs about $150 million, although large-scale production could bring the price down to as low as $30 million. Northrop says its system could be deployed at major U.S. airports by 2008.

How it works:

  1. Find target: An infrared camera on the laser continuously scans a 6- to 10-mile radius around the airport for suspicious heat emissions. When it finds a plume, it relays the coordinates to an identification-and-tracking system, which is also on the unit.
  2. Confirm threat: The onboard computer checks the object's heat signature against a data bank, confirms that it's a missile (and not a bird or a plane), and activates the laser.
  3. Prepare to fire: Reactive gases in the laser's fuel tanks are funneled through a vacuum tube to heat up atoms and send them cascading through resonator mirrors. This produces a tightly focused, high-energy beam.
  4. Destroy missile: The laser-beam cannon emits a burst of intense light aimed at the missile's most vulnerable spot, usually the explosives compartment. Simultaneously, it relays a wireless signal to a computer located in the airport control tower to give authorities a fix on the origin of the rocket.

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The Skyguard laser system could take out mortar rounds, artillery shells and rockets.

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