The U.S. Military Wants to Build Space Lasers

Othman Mekhloufi | @othmanmekhloufi

The Pentagon has asked for $304 million in the 2020 budget to fund research and development for space-based lasers, neutral particle beams, and advanced missile defense. DefenseOne reported that two studies are currently being conducted by American defense officials regarding these space-based weapons. These two studies aim to develop a space-based weapon capable of disabling enemy ballistic missiles moments after launch.

One of the studies centers around space-based neutral particle beams. The other centers around satellites hooked with lasers in their effectiveness of achieving the previously mentioned goal.

Defense officials expect this study to conclude within six months.

The Pentagon said these new weapons are needed for countering Chinese, North Korean, and Iranian ballistic missiles.

Defense officials hope to launch these weapons into orbit and test them by 2023. On Wednesday, March 13th, officials stated that the studies would definitely result in a deployable weapon.

Space-Based Particle Beams & Their Functions

Neutral particle beams accelerate neutrons (particles without an electric charge) near to the speed of light in the form of a beam towards a target. The neutrons, thrown at the particles of the target, knock the protons out of the nucleus and generate heat within the target.

A beam powerful enough could fully disable enemy ballistic missiles and other spacecraft by producing enough heat within the target. Igniting the fuel supply can melt the missile, render it aerodynamically unstable, or fry the onboard electronics.

The Differentiations Between Neutral Particle Beams & Lasers

Neutral particle beams and lasers are different sorts of weaponry. Neutral particle beams function by affecting the interior of a target at the subatomic level, rather than the surface of a target like lasers do. This allows for particle beams to effectively evade deflection by mirror-like surfaces that lasers would otherwise be subject to.

How This Weaponry Will Counter Ballistic Missiles

After launch, ballistic missiles accelerate and soar through the atmosphere into high sub-orbital spaceflight (low earth orbit). Individual warheads then separate from the missile and proceed onto their own trajectories to strike their respective targets.

The space-based neutral particle beams would disable ballistic weapons moments after launch while they are still accelerating into low earth orbit and prior to the release of their warheads.

History of American Development of Space Weaponry

This instance is not the first in which the Department of Defense has pondered upon space weaponry.

The United States first launched a neutral particle beam accelerator into space in 1989 as part of the BEAR experiment; Beam Experiment Aboard a Rocket. Launched from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, a U.S. Army testing area, the accelerator reached an altitude of 124 miles. Defense officials stated the accelerator was successfully tested in “[neutral particle beam] propagation characteristics in space and the effects on spacecraft components.” After reentering the atmosphere, the satellite was recovered without severe damage.

Issues Surrounding Space-Based Weaponry

There exist many technical issues surrounding space-based neutral particle beams that developers should resolve in order for the weaponry to be successful.

The space-based neutral particle beams would have to be near enough to the ballistic missile’s launch site in order to effectively strike the missiles in time.

The neutral particle beam will have to maintain a consistent beam for over 1,000 kilometers from low-earth orbit all the way down to the ground. Each beam will need a sufficiently portable power supply of its own in order to operate.

U.S. defense officials must also uncover how to detect enemy ballistic missiles within seconds of their launch. After detection, the data and information must promptly be forwarded to the particle beam which must then target the respective missile.

Calculations must also be made in order to determine how many particle beams will be needed for the ballistic missile to be effectively disabled.

Because entities in low orbit do not remain stationary, a number of beams would be needed in order to make sure that one particle beam or more will be above the launch site of an enemy ballistic missile at the time of launch.

All of this must be carried through within moments of launch for the space-based weaponry to function as desired. Even so, these mechanisms have yet to be mastered.

The Pentagon faced similar issues to these with the BEAR experiment in the 1980s.

The Pentagon may see success in their attempt to create weapons deemed ‘particle beams’ within space. By 2023, a conclusion will be reached and the world could possibly gaze upon successful space weaponry. It seems to be that with nearly every sunset, humanity’s dreams of science fiction come closer to becoming reality.

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