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Northrop advance brings era of the laser gun closer

Unlocking the secret of creating the powerful beams with electricity will lead to smaller, portable weapons, experts say.

March 19, 2009|Peter Pae

Northrop Grumman Corp. engineers in Redondo Beach have developed an electric laser capable of producing a deadly 100-kilowatt ray of light, a major milestone that is expected to help transform what was once a Buck Rogers space fantasy into reality.

Announced Wednesday, the landmark achievement -- long considered a Holy Grail for weapon developers -- opens the way for development of laser weapons small enough to fit in a fighter jet yet powerful enough to destroy an enemy craft in the blink of an eye.

After more than four decades of frustrations and failures, "you can now see that the battlefield applications of laser weapons are becoming a real possibility," said Barry Watts, senior fellow and an expert on so-called directed energy weapons at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank in Washington.

Laser guns are still years from being used in combat and it may be the middle of next decade before they are installed on fighter planes, tanks and ships.

But Northrop "proved" that a laser powered by electricity could generate a beam powerful enough to destroy targets in the battlefield, said Brian Strickland, the Army's manager for the Joint High Power Solid State Laser program.

"This is a major milestone because we have proven that we can build it," Strickland said.

The beam from a solid-state laser is powered by electricity, which can be generated by a jet engine or the turbines of a tank. Chemical lasers are capable of producing much more powerful beams, but because the energy output relies on the quantity of chemicals used, they take up a lot of space.

Dan Wildt, vice president of Northrop's directed energy systems program, said few believed that an electric laser could produce a 100-kilowatt beam. Reaching even 10 kilowatts was considered a milestone just a few years ago.

"Five years ago few people believed that a solid-state laser could produce a militarily suitable 100-kilowatt beam," Wildt said.

With the major hurdle overcome, the next step would be to take the laser from the laboratory to the field and begin shooting down missiles with it, Strickland said. The laser would also have to be scaled down and "ruggedized" so it could withstand battlefield abuse. "It is still a little heavy and a little big," he said.

The word "laser" is an acronym for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation." The technology turns atomic particles into light with enough radiation to damage an object it encounters. The range and severity of the damage depend on how much power can be generated and how well the light can be focused on a target.

The Northrop laser produced a beam at more than 105 kilowatts, which is akin to focusing more than 1,000 100-watt light bulbs on a small spot. The intensity of the light would be comparable to that on the surface of the sun.

A secret demonstration was held for the military at Northrop's Space Park in Redondo Beach last month and then verified by the Army before it was disclosed Wednesday.

The sprawling complex, built during the height of the Cold War, has developed some of the nation's most complex weapon systems, including the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as pioneering military communication and spy satellites. It took up laser research in the 1960s and became the first laboratory to develop a weapons-grade chemical laser.

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peter.pae@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

It came from Space Park

Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Redondo Beach complex, commonly known as Space Park, has developed or worked on some of the nation's most advanced missiles, satellites and lasers. The complex was part of TRW Corp. until 2002, when it was acquired by Northrop.

1958: Pioneer 1, the nation's first spacecraft designed and built by private industry

1959: Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile

1970: Defense Support Program satellites for monitoring ballistic missile launches

1972: Pioneer 10, first satellite to leave the solar system

1980: First megawatt-class, high-energy chemical laser

1991: Compton Gamma Ray Observatory spacecraft

1999: Chandra X-ray Observatory spacecraft

2002: Hubble Space Telescope replacement (NASA contract won shortly after Northrop agreed to buy TRW and the Space Park facility)

2009: First 100-kilowatt, solid-state laser

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Sources: Northrop Grumman Corp. and Times research

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