IT SHOULD be the moment of truth for the Airborne Laser (ABL). In the coming months, the multibillion-dollar laser built into a customised Boeing 747 will try to shoot a ballistic missile as it rises above the clouds.
Don't expect instant reports of success, though. Instead, if all goes to plan, we're likely to hear about a series of incremental improvements.
Developed by the US Department of Defense's Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the ABL aims to focus a beam of laser energy in the megawatt range for several seconds onto a missile at a "militarily significant distance" - more than 100 kilometres.
So far, the laser has only operated at near full power on the ground. On 18 August it was fired successfully from the air, but at reduced power. That, however, was no mean feat: aircraft vibrations play havoc with the precisely aligned optical components needed to generate a laser beam.
Firing at full power poses other challenges too. At powers high enough to destroy missiles, any surface contamination or tiny flaw in the laser optics can absorb so much heat that they crack or shatter.
High-power laser beams also heat the air they pass through, creating perturbations that can disperse or divert the beam. To counteract those effects, the ABL uses an adaptive system that senses atmospheric changes along its path and makes optical adjustments to compensate.
To test that system, the MDA plans a series of increasingly powerful shots at modified ballistic missiles loaded with sensors to measure the distribution of laser power on the target. Engineers will assess each shot's performance and use the results to fine-tune the adaptive optics. Once this is done, the MDA will test the laser again in varying conditions, and attempt to destroy actual missiles. The first of these tests is planned to take place late this year, with two more to follow in early 2010, according to an MDA spokeswoman.
A sister project, the Advanced Tactical Laser, which aims to use an airborne high-powered laser to hit targets on the ground, recently completed its first successful test. With future funding dependent upon the success of these tests, the pressure is on the ABL team to prove its efficacy.