Airborne Laser Blasts Off

Anti-Ballistic-Missile Plane Gets First Test

Airborne Laser

Bob Ferguson/Boeing

Should they cast their eyes skyward at just the right moment, a few lucky observers could see something spectacular this summer: a Boeing 747 splitting open a ballistic missile with a laser in mid-flight. After 12 years and $5 billion in R&D, the Missile Defense Agency's Airborne Laser (ABL) will make its first real-world attempt to shoot down a missile in midair.

The ABL uses a chemical reaction to generate a megawatt of infrared laser light. When a missile's smoke trail from burning propellant sets off the 747's sensors, a tracking laser locks onto the target's most vulnerable spot, usually its fuel tank. Then the main laser fires away.

It's no simple feat: Robert McMurry, Jr., the ABL program director for the Missile Defense Agency, compares the challenge to "flying over the Washington Monument while shooting through a basketball hoop in Central Park." If this summer's demonstration is successful, further flight tests will help refine the technology for use in a second, more powerful and smaller prototype, expected in 2013.

Read more of Popular Science's predictions for 2009.