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Oh's No's! Real Ray Guns Coming Soon!

It had to happen eventually: Star Trek phasers and Star Wars blasters are no longer science fiction, but science fact, as defense contractor Northrop Grumman successfully created a scalable, 100-kilowatt laser.

So what does that mean to the average Joe? It means that a 100-kilowatt laser can do more than just blind the human eye; it can do unthinkable damage. As it stands, defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corporation managed to get its solid-state laser to fire a rather potent beam of 105.5 kilowatts (link). This technological breakthrough means that now humankind can advance into deadly, vehicle-mounted laser weaponry rather than depend on the antique projectile-based weaponry. Suddenly Star Trek and Star Wars isn't so fictional after all, especially once the discovery is refined enough to where the weapons aren't so bulky and heavy.

But as it stands, weapons can only be developed for jet fighters, ships or other vehicles, however those will probably not appear until 2015; hand-held laser weapons are even further away that that. Still, the company is thrilled that the killer ray can be built, that it's just not figures on paper, that it really works. "This achievement is particularly important because the 100kW threshold has been viewed traditionally as a proof of principle for 'weapons grade' power levels for high-energy lasers," said Dan Wildt, vice president of Directed Energy Systems for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector. "In fact, many militarily useful effects can be achieved by laser weapons of 25kW or 50 kW, provided this energy is transmitted with good beam quality, as our system does. With this milestone, we have far exceeded those needs."

The technological breakthrough is a culmination of forty years of heard work placed in the US military's Joint High Power Solid State Laser (JHPSSL) program, currently in phase 3. The company completed its final demonstration by showing that the device could successfully power up in less than a second, and work continuously for five minutes without losing beam quality. The laser is already capable of sustaining a beam above 100kW for more than 85 minutes, as seen in the System Test Data Review held Feb. 10 at Northrop Grumman's Directed Energy Production Facility in Redondo Beach, Calif.

Outside the laser's potent potential for delivering a deadly ray, the company designed the device with scalability in mind using "building blocks," or rather, amplifier chains. Each block produces approximately 15kw of power in a high-quality beam; seven were used in the demonstration to produce the 105.5 kW beam. "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," Wildt said.

Although the laser passed in a laboratory environment, the next step is to bring it into the field and take down missiles in a flaming heap. However, to get to that point, the team will have to scale the entire device down--to consolidate it into a movable form--and then "ruggedize" the device so that it can withstand battlefield abuse. At its present state, the laser is rather heavy and large. Still, if the Ghostbusters can carry proton packs and withstand the whipping of particle beams, then surely a well-fit soldier can lug around a heft-heavy-dusty laser cannon, no?

For now, the Army is scheduled to drag the device to its High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility (pdf) at White Sands Missile Range, however the actual testing won't take place until this time next year.