Missile-Proofing Runways | Popular Science
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Missile-Proofing Runways

Homeland Security eyes high-power lasers for protecting commercial flights. Click inside for video

by John MacNeill

John MacNeill

Sounds too futuristic to be true? See below for a video of the Skyguard system taking out mortar rounds, artillery shells and rockets

This summer´s war between Lebanon and Israel was the most recent demonstration of the deadly threat posed by shoulder-fired missiles. Lebanese Hezbollah fighters armed with portable rocket launchers fired more than 3,700 missiles into Israeli cities during the 34-day conflict. With a growing number of such weapons, referred to in military-speak as MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems) showing up on the black market, U.S. officials are becoming increasingly concerned about their risk to commercial aircraft. That´s why the Department of Homeland Security is nearly doubling its spending on countermeasure 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, such Star Warsâ€grade protection carries 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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