Energy weapon maker Northrop Grumman has announced further successful ground tests for the mighty laser cannon installed in America's prototype nuke-blasting jumbo jet.
Northrop says that "multiple long-duration, lethal" blasts were fired in ground tests last week, allowing engineers to "tune" the mighty megawatt-range energy gun and tweak its chemical fuel mix. The firm says that the settings will now be left in place for further trials, including the actual shootdown of a real ICBM set for later this year.
It seems that in this case a "long-duration" blast is one lasting three seconds or so. However, company energy-cannon chief Dan Wildt said the laser could easily have kept blazing for longer, but this would have destroyed or melted the ground test equipment.
According to Northrop, these latest tests saw the death ray coming straight out of the laser into measuring gear. The next step will be similar firings, but this time with the combat-intensity beam passing through the fire-control systems and coming out of the jumbo's distinctive swivelling nose turret into a "range simulator".
That's supposed to take place "in the next few weeks, clearing the [laser plane] to begin weapon system flight tests".
The culmination of the flight test programme will be an attempt to blow up an actual ballistic missile as it boosts upward from its launch pad, the mission the blaster-jumbo is designed for. Northrop, along with partners Boeing and Lockheed, believe this will take place before next year.
The laser aircraft is being developed by the US military's Missile Defense Agency, which envisions a fleet of blaster-jumbos able to mount standing patrols off the coast of North Korea and vape hostile nuclear ICBMs as soon as they lift off - should North Korea develop a working ICBM*. The likelihood of this plan ever reaching fruition - regardless of how successful this year's tests might be - is thought to have dipped significantly following the US election result. ®
*North Korea's Taepodong-2 missile is assessed as being capable of reaching the United States. However when it was test-fired in 2006 it blew up 40 seconds off the pad.