March 23, 2009 Star Wars-style laser weapons have taken another step closer to reality with Northrop Grumman reporting that it has produced a 105 kilowatt (kW) light ray from an electric laser in the final demonstration milestone of Phase 3 of the U.S. military's Joint High Power Solid State Laser (JHPSSL) program. At this energy level such a "weapons grade" laser would be capable of taking out cruise missiles, rockets and artillery from land, sea and airborne platforms, but Han Solo won't be slipping this still hefty device into his side holster anytime soon.

Northrop Grumman's scalable modular system uses "laser amplifier chains" of around 15kW each - seven were were combined to produce a single beam of 105.5 kW. This "building block" approach also makes sense given that power levels below 100kW will still be effective in certain military scenarios.

"Our modular JHPSSL design makes it straightforward to scale laser weapon systems to mission-required power levels for a variety of uses, to include force protection and precision strike missions for air-, sea- and land-based platforms," said Dan Wildt, vice president of Directed Energy Systems for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector.

"Power scaling will be one of the game-changing features of high-energy lasers because it allows graduated responses by U.S. military services appropriate for whatever level of threat they may face. Threats vary, and so should the response."

The laser tests included a turn-on time of 0.6 seconds and continuous operating time of five minutes. The laser already has been operated at above 100kW for a total duration of more than 85 minutes.

The system can also accommodate an eighth laser chain which would increase laser power to 120kW.

While there are doubts in some quarters about the viability of the long quest for military grade laser weapons which are seen as too bulky, too complex and too long in development without significant results, recent developments like this one, plus Boeing's recent shooting down of a UAV by a 1-kilowatt solid state laser system mounted on an Avenger combat vehicle and the continuing efforts equip land and airborne vehicles with solid state laser systems, we doubt we've seen the last of this futuristic technology.

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