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ABL Keeps Optical Components Aligned Perfectly To Achieve First Flight Firing

Maintaining the precise alignment of optical components within the laser while in flight ranks among the program's notable accomplishments.
by Staff Writers
Edwards AFB CA (SPX) Aug 21, 2009
One flight, three more 'firsts' for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency's Airborne Laser (ABL). And a victory for 'laser alignment.' Those were the primary achievements the airborne directed energy system chalked up when its high-power Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) was fired in-flight for the first time Aug. 18. In the process, ABL became:

+ The first mobile, megawatt-class laser

+ The first airborne, megawatt-class laser, and

+ The most powerful laser ever to be operated during an actual flight.

Northrop Grumman, under contract to The Boeing Company, the ABL prime contractor, designed and built the high-energy COIL, the most powerful laser ever developed for an airborne environment.

Maintaining the precise alignment of optical components within the laser while in flight ranks among the program's notable accomplishments, according to Steve Hixson, vice president of Advanced Concepts - Space and Directed Energy Systems for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector.

"ABL has to keep all of the powerful laser's optical components perfectly positioned as the aircraft vibrates and flexes during flight," Hixson said.

"Since we were unable to fly the kind of large concrete pads used to hold a ground-based laser's optics in place, we had to isolate the COIL's optics from the structure but also maintain alignment. So the team developed an optical bench isolation system that isolates disturbances caused by normal aircraft operations while maintaining alignment to the gain medium, or the source of a laser's optical power. It's like an automobile's 'smart suspension' that keeps the car riding smoothly at the same level over a bumpy road."

The ABL aircraft is a modified Boeing 747-400F whose back half holds the high-energy laser. The front section of the aircraft contains the beam control/fire control system, developed by Lockheed Martin, and the battle management system, provided by Boeing.

Guy Renard, Northrop Grumman's ABL program manager, said COIL "operated in flight as if it was planted solidly on terra firma instead of on an aircraft flying hundreds of miles per hour and thousands of feet above ground." According to Renard, "Investments in ABL's leap-ahead technologies are paying off, as this flight proved."

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Boeing ABL Team Completes First Airborne Test Against Instrumented Target Missile
Edwards AFB CA (SPX) Aug 17, 2009
Boeing, industry teammates and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency on Aug. 10 successfully completed the Airborne Laser's (ABL) first in-flight test against an instrumented target missile, achieving a historic milestone. During the test, the modified Boeing 747-400F aircraft took off from Edwards Air Force Base and used its infrared sensors to find a target missile launched from San Nicolas Is ... read more

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