US aerospace megacorp Boeing has announced that ground tests of its nuke-roasting aerial blaster cannon are imminent. "Activation Tests" of the newly installed Airborne Laser (ABL) ray weapon - the final stage before ground firings - have now begun, according to the company.
The ABL's mighty chemical laser, designed to heat up ascending ICBM rocket stacks to explosion point from 400km away, has now been fitted inside the back half of the 747 cargo plane which will carry it. The battle computers, beam-control and aiming gear in the front end were successfully flight tested last year, using a low-powered beam in place of the full power photon arse-kicker.
The chemically fuelled weapons-laser system has also been tested on the ground, apparently producing acceptable results, but taking it to bits and reassembling it inside the plane has been no easy task. However, Boeing reckon they've now accomplished this, with nothing left to do but some final wiring and plumbing, and integrity tests on the laser.
This last is important, as chemical laser fuels - and the waste products produced during firing - are highly toxic and corrosive, so any leaks could result in the plane being badly damaged or even destroyed. Boeing plan to do the initial checks with water or other harmless liquids, before moving on to the real zap-juice. Then there will be ground firings and flight tests, followed by a full-dress trial against a ballistic missile (without warhead) planned for next year.
"Laser installation and the start of laser activation move the program a giant step closer to ABL's missile shoot-down demonstration planned for 2009," says Boeing raygun chief Scott Fancher.
Critics of the programme have noted in the past that the 2009 date has tended to move back year on year; the inaugural missile sky-fry was originally planned for 2005. However, for the past year at least, the date has held steady - perhaps indicating that Boeing may have got over the worst of their technical problems. The ABL programme continues to struggle for support and funding in Washington, however.
Even if ABL can successfully toast a rocket in '09, however, this is unlikely to totally silence all criticism. Opponents say that the strato-raygun is realistically only useful against missiles launching from sites close to friendly (or at least neutral) airspace. For ABLs to be any use against nukes lifting off from the interior of larger countries, the blaster-jumbos might have to mount incursions across the enemy's border - a move which could trigger the very strike they are designed to defend against. The laser planes are reckoned to be effective against missiles only in the early stages of their flight, while boosters full of fuel are still there to be cooked off.
Others point out that a large and expensive fleet of ABLs would be needed to keep up standing patrols near rogue states, and highlight the logistic difficulties attendant on the planes' dangerous laser fuels. Still others note that the ABLs would probably be no use against submarine-launched missiles, unless some way of reliably tracking nuclear-powered subs could be found.
Boeing and the Pentagon's Missile defence Agency aren't having any of that, however. They reckon the ABL is pretty damn cool, and they have expressed their views in the form of multimedia - made available on YouTube earlier this year, courtesy of Flight magazine:
(You need Flash and a friendly firewall to see it.)
That may console any raygun fanciers reading this until the real testing starts - assuming that this time the schedule is real. ®