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Space Based Laser [SBL]

The potential of intercepting and destroying a missile over enemy territory, soon after launch, rather than over friendly territory makes the development of a boost phase intercept (BPI) capability very desirable. In concert with ground based theater missile defense (TMD) systems already under development, the U. S. continues to investigate BPI concepts for BMD systems.

The SBL program could develop the technology to provide the U. S. with an advanced BMD system for both theater and national missile defense. BMDO believes that an SBL system has the potential to make other contributions to U. S. security and world security as a whole. BMDO hopes that the fielding of a space based missile defense system would induce potential aggressors to abandon ballistic missile programs, as they would be rendered useless. Failing that, BMDO believes that the creation of such a universal defense system would provide the impetus for other nations to expand their security agreements with the United States, bringing them under a U. S. sponsored missile defense umbrella.

An SBL platform would achieve missile interception by focusing and maintaining a high powered laser on a target until it achieves catastrophic destruction. Energy for the sustained laser burst is generated by the chemical reaction of the hydrogen fluoride (HF) molecule. The HF molecules are created in an excited state from which the subsequent optical energy is drawn by an optical resonator surrounding the gain generator.

Lasers have been investigated for their usefulness in air defense since 1973, when the Mid Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL) was first tested against tactical missiles and drone aircraft. Work on such systems continued through the 1980s, with the Airborne Laser Laboratory, which completed the first test laser intercepts above the earth. Initial work on laser based defense systems was overseen by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), but transferred to the newly created Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) in 1984. Work continues today under the auspices of the BMDO, the successor to the SDIO.

Over the past thre decades, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Air Force and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), formerly the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), have developed the technologies essential for a Space-Based Laser (SBL) system. The Alpha LAMP Integration (ALI) program performed integrated high energy ground testing of the laser and beam expander to demonstrate the critical system elements. The next step was an integrated space vehicle ground test with a space demonstration to conclusively prove the feasibility of deploying an operational SBL system.

Future plans included orbiting the SBL Readiness Demonstrator (SBLRD) in order to test all of the systems together in their intended working environment. The SBLRD satellite will be comprised of four major subsystems: the ATP system, which provides acquisition, tracking, targeting, stabilization, and assessment capabilities; the laser device, which provides for the optical power, and beam quality, as well as maintains nozzle efficiency; the optics and beam control systems, which enhance and focus the beam, augmenting the capabilities of the laser device; and the space systems, which provide a stable platform, storage of the reactants, and furnish electrical power (but do not power the laser).

The SBL Readiness Demonstration (SBLRD) is a technology integration project that could result in a demonstration of the capability to perform boost phase Theater Missile Defense from space.  The objectives of the space demonstration include gaining performance information critical to the development of an operational SBL system, as well as gain a general understanding of operationing such a system.

BMDO and the Air Force agreed to transfer the execution of the SBLRD project and the related SBL technology developments to the Air Force. BMDO retained overarching SBL architecture responsibilities.

The SBL program built on a broad variety of technologies developed by the SDIO in the 1980s. The work on the Large Optics Demonstration Experiment (LODE), completed in 1987, provided the means to control the beams of large, high powered lasers. The Large Advanced Mirror Program (LAMP) designed and built a 4 meter diameter space designed mirror with the required optical figure and surface quality. In 1991, the Alpha laser (2.8 mm) developed by the SDIO achieved megawatt power at the requisite operating level in a low pressure environment similar to space. Numerous Acquisition, Tracking, and Pointing/ Fire Control (ATP/ FC) experiments both completed and currently underway will provide the SBL platform with stable aimpoints. Successes in the field of ATP include advances in inertial reference, vibration isolation, and rapid retargeting/ precision pointing (R2P2). In 1995, the Space Pointing Integrated Controls Experiment offered near weapons level results during testing.

In its 1984 directed energy plan, SD10 planned to develop and ground test the Space-Based Chemical baser (SBCL) technology by the end of 1990 at a cost of $1,121 million. Through fiscal year 1993, SDIO had spent $873 million and had completed all major objectives except the ground test. SDIO estimated that it would take 2 more years and cost $176 million more to complete the ground demonstration and several advanced technologies. These actions would complete the 1934 plan for SBCL for a total cost of $1,049 million or $72 million less than estimated in the plan. SDIO would then decide whether to complete a system level demonstration on the ground at an estimated cost of $400 million. An optional flight experiment would cost another $370 million. These system level demonstrations would complete the demonstration and validation phase of development.

By previous guidance in PBD 224C (28 Dec 1998) the BMDO and USAF SBL project pursued an integrated ground demonstration. It is known as the ITU. Additional guidance was provided by the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (USD (AT&L)) memorandum to BMDO Director dated 25 Feb 1999) to structure a project plan leading to an SBL IFX in FY12/13. Furthermore, the SBL project has been designated as a Pre-MDAP by the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology. A contract was awarded 8 February 1999 conveying total system authority (TSA) on a Joint Venture (JV) Team comprised of Lockheed Martin, TRW, and Boeing. Under TSA the government specifies broad objectives, and the JV is responsible for the content of the SBL IFX, including the ITU.

The Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program and resulting FY 2002 President's Budget request was developed based on revised Secretary of Defense direction to develop capabilities to defend against the missile threat and sustain appropriate deterrence levels. Beginning in FY 2002, funding from Program Element 0603174C Space Based Laser was moved to PE 0603883C Boost Defense Segment to facilitate BMD system capability evolution, allow timely responses and reactions to changes in the BMD program, and provide the programmatic agility to mitigate unforeseen consequences. Based on the FY 2002 funding reduction, the MDA reevaluated the Space Based Laser (SBL) program. Activities involving the Integrated Flight Experiment concept were brought to a halt in an orderly manner, preserving long term value for a future program. Beginning in FY 2003, funding for the Space Based Laser program (Project 4043) transitioned to support the Missile Defense Agency's (MDA's) Laser Technology Program. Reference Program Element 0603875C Advanced System (AS) for project 4043.

The Space-Based Laser is planned to be a spacecraft weighing 17,500 kg, though this weight could grow to 19,000 kg. The spacecraft would be 20 meters long with a diameter of over 4.5 meters. As of mid-2001 the SBL Integrated Flight Experiment was scheduled for launch in 2012, with an intercept test to be conducted in 2013. The SBL test facility is being built at NASA s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The project passed a Systems Requirements Review in March 2001, with a System Definition Review planned for fall 2001. Accelerating the schedule of the SBL prototype would require funding increases over the initially estimated $2-3 billion cost of the test. Some estimates suggest that a full 20-satellite constellation could cost $40 billion, plus launch costs.

In the late 1990s SBL planning was based on a 20 satellite constellation, operating at a 40 inclination, intended to provide the optimum TMD threat negation capability. At this degree of deployment, kill times per missile will range from 1 to 10 seconds, depending on the range from the missile. Retargeting times are calculated at as low as 0.5 seconds for new targets requiring small angle changes. It was estimated that a constellation consisting of only 12 satellites can negate 94% of all missile threats in most theater threat scenarios. Thus a system consisting of 20 satellites is expected by BMDO to provide nearly full threat negation.

SBLRD Characteristics
Weight: 17,500 kg
Length: 20.12 m
Diameter: 4.57 m
Mirror Diameter: 4.0 m

  • Hydrogen fluoride chemical energy powered laser.
  • On board surveillance capabilities.
  • Super reflective mirror coatings allowing for uncooled optics.
  • Concurrent NMD / TMD capability.




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