WASHINGTON — A high-power chemical laser developed for the "Star Wars" program has been successfully tested in Orange County, the Pentagon said Monday.
The test, the first of its kind, was conducted in a vacuum chamber simulating the conditions of space. Described by the Defense Department as "a major milestone," the test took place Friday at a TRW Inc. facility near San Clemente.
The experiment was originally scheduled a year ago but had to be postponed because of a small fire that damaged the vacuum chamber. Technical problems and budget cuts then added up to a year's delay.
The so-called Alpha laser generated a beam for just one-fifth of a second, but that "first light" test was sufficient to verify the theoretical calculations made in designing the device, said Neil Griff, the program manager for chemical lasers with the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization.
Most Promising Technology
The Alpha device has long been described as the Pentagon's most promising technology for a small, lightweight laser that could be built with enough power to operate as a weapon in space.
"This is the first time we have demonstrated a laser that we believe is scalable (in power) to meet SDI requirements," Griff added Monday.
He declined to disclose at what power levels the laser operated in Friday's test, saying that the information is classified. But he said the power levels used in the experiment were "considerably smaller" than what would be needed for an orbiting space weapon.
The Star Wars program, known formally as the Strategic Defense Initiative, is a research effort to develop laser and other types of exotic weapons that could be deployed in space and on the ground to automatically shoot down nuclear missiles fired at the United States or its allies.
In October, 1987, the Pentagon awarded a contract to Martin Marietta Corp., asking it to assess the possibility of testing Alpha in space. In the meantime, however, TRW Inc., which built the device, has been preparing for the first ground tests in Orange County.
"This test represents the culmination of several years of research that began before the creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization in 1984," said a Pentagon statement.
"For the first time, the Alpha chemical laser produced a high-power beam, verifying that all subsystems were operating correctly. During the coming months, more extensive tests of the Alpha laser are planned to thoroughly analyze beam characteristics."
TRW's 2,700-acre south county facility, which opened in 1963, is at 32502 Avenida Pico on unincorporated county land in the San Clemente hills, near the San Diego County border. It employs 200 people. Several classified projects have been reported under way there. TRW Inc. is based in Redondo Beach.
The Alpha laser has been studied for a decade. The Pentagon has invested $250 million in the device's design and construction and in building test facilities to replicate the vacuum of space.
The laser is built primarily of aluminum, making it relatively light and compact. It is thought to have 2 million watts of power.
The Pentagon is also testing a different type of chemical laser that is considered more appropriate than Alpha for shooting laser light through the atmosphere from ground bases.