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The History of Space Based Laser

The Need

Before the laser was invented, it was needed. The threat of Soviet ICBMs was particularly frightening and there was no known defense. Trying to knock down a missile coming over the pole at 3-5 miles per second (much faster than a bullet) was an impossible task in the late 1950s. What was needed was something faster than a missile.


One of the early solutions was a concept to place an interceptor on an orbiting satellite. From a satellite, an interceptor already has more velocity than the missile. An intercept trajectory is theoretically possible.

Notice that the "satellite" looks more like a missile than a satellite, but this was the 1950s, and what a satellite would look like was a guess.

BAMBI was part of ARPA’s (Advanced Research Project Agency) Project Defender, a missile defense program. Back in those days it was called "Anti-Ballistic Missile" or ABM.

Begun in 1958, BAMBI was also a part of project Midas, an infrared early warning system.

BAMBI was canceled in 1963 because it was predicted to cost $50B per year in maintenance.

The Invention of the Laser

The ruby LASER (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) was invented in 1960 as an extension of the concepts of an ammonia MASER (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).

The potential use of the laser for speed-of-light defense was understood very quickly. A lot of the work on lasers was classified because of the potential for the development of a breakthrough militarily effective laser.

Great progress was made toward ever increasing power in solid state lasers. Nearly all of the early lasers were flash lamp pumped. After the ruby laser, neodymium glass lasers followed fairly quickly.

Within a couple of years, electric discharge gas lasers appeared: CO2 lasers (longwave infrared) and helium-neon lasers (visible red.)



Flash Pumped Lasers

Only the light from the flashlamp of wavelength in resonance with the quantum states in the laser medium can be absorbed and contribute to the laser output. 99.9% of the flashlamp energy is wasted.




A chemical laser is pumped by a chemical reaction (burning fuel)

Chemical lasers were more efficient and managed heat far more easily than solid state lasers and soon became the favorite for ground based, airborne and space based lasers


Chemical Oxygen-Iodine Laser (COIL) chemistry shown


1962 Project Seaside

•1962 - Anti-ballistic missile study to use a ruby-laser to defend against Soviet ICBMs
•1963 – first DOD Conference on laser technology
•1967 – Gas dynamic laser at AVCO produces 10 kW
•1967 - Secretary of Defense McNamara establishes 50 kW as “high energy laser”

1968 XLD – Experimental Laser Device

•Demonstrated 77kw at United Aircraft Research Laboratory (now United Technologies Research Center)

•At Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Government Products Division, (Florida Test Site shown) Increased Power to 700 kW


1970 MESA Laser Tests

•China Lake Missile Engagement Simulation Arena

•Dimensions: 84,190 square feet, 90 feet high by 405 feet long by 150 feet wide

•Demonstrated tracking and pointing of laser is possible for realistic engagements



1970 Field Test Telescope

  • Date: October, 1970
  • Cost: $4 million U.S.
  • Weight: 900 kg
  • Size: 1.8 meters high
  • Focal Spot Size: 5.2 cm at 1,000 m
  • Pointing Accuracy: 25 μradians
  • Range: 500-5,000 meters
  • Mirror Reflectivity: near 100%
  • Mirror Load: < 250 kW for 15 s
  • Water cooled optics (except primary mirror)
  • Primary mirror: 80 cm, un-cooled, its surface area is sufficiently large for effective convective and radiative cooling
  • Built by: Hughes Aircraft
  • Passive Infrared Tracking Sensor: 3-5 μm


1972 Tri-Services LaserTri-Services Laser

  • Date: April, 1972
  • Type: Gas dynamic laser CO2 - N2 - H2O
  • Power: 100 kW
  • Location: one laser was built for each service:
    • U.S. Army, Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Alabama
    • U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Chesapeake Bay Annex, Maryland
    • U.S. Air Force Weapons Laboratory (AFWL), Kirtland Air Force Base (AFB) the Air Force TSL was later referred to as the AFL I (Air Force Laser I)
  • Weight: 32,000 kg
  • Cost: $4.7 million U.S. for AFL I
  • Built by:
    • AVCO
    • AFWL at SOR (Sandia Optical Range)
    • Hughes Aircraft: water cooled optics

1973 Integration of Field Test Telescope and Tri-Service Laser

Chemical Lasers understood by mid 1970s

Near megawatt power levels achieved with chemical lasers at Avco, GE, TRW, Pratt &
Whitney, and Rocketdyne

  • Early chemical lasers indicated problems with efficient power extraction and beam quality
  • It was also known that a weapon would need to be pointed very precisely
  • Very large telescope optics would be needed that could be deployed in space


Some Milestones in High Energy Laser Development in the late 1970s

History of Space Based Laser Part 2

Rewritten to be more mobile friendly March 2017

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Revised: March 15, 2017 .