When the Navy announced last month that it was deploying a shipboard laser weapon in the Persian Gulf, it seemed that the future of warfare had arrived, in which the enemy could be blasted from the sky by a beam of light.
The beam of light part is basically accurate — that’s what a laser produces, although in this case the light is not in the visible part of the spectrum. But the Navy weapon does not blast anything; instead, it heats its target, bombarding it with light particles until it ablates, ignites or otherwise is damaged. It is death by a bazillion photons.
Peter A. Morrison, manager of the Navy program, said the weapon’s lasers use a crystal that has been doped with a rare-earth element. Light-emitting diodes are used to “pump” the crystal — transferring energy into it and stimulating the emission of photons, which all have the same energy and exit the crystal from one end in a tight beam. Multiple lasers are used, and the beams can be focused so they overlap on the target, concentrating the photons on a small area.
Since the weapon relies on gradual heating, accurate tracking of the target is crucial. The Navy system first relies on radar to supply a general range and heading, Mr. Morrison said, and then hands the tracking off to an optical system, lighting up the target with lower-energy laser pulses if necessary. Once the target is identified as a threat, the LEDs are switched on, activating the higher-power beams. Then it’s just a matter of time until the photons do their thing.
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