Are Lasers The Weapons Of The Future?

Laser weapons no longer only exist in science fiction! Lasers are being used to develop ultra precise weapons, but how do they work?

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By now, you've probably heard stories about laser pointers could cause an airplanes to crash, and that's because lasers are cool! They have remained a symbol of the future since the first one was built in the 1960s. Although laser technology is used for all sorts of things like plastic surgery, range finders, distance-measuring radar, and satellite-based mapping, we haven't seen them be used in guns or conventional warfare. But all this might be changing very soon. "Laser" first entered our lexicon as an acronym for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation". The light emitted from a laser is the same energy you find coming out of a regular lightbulb, only the lightwaves are aligned along a single frequency instead of scattering in different directions. Most lasers are under one watt, which means they're low energy. So what's preventing science from upping the wattage and making a laser blaster?

But, what happens if we turn up the power? Can we make laser blasters? Higher-energy lasers are capable of sending an extremely focused amount of energy towards a target, where they excite the electrons, causing them to heating up. In July, 2015, researchers in Osaka, Japan, announced they had fired the most powerful laser ever, the two-petawatt LFEX (Laser for Fast Ignition Experiments), which could one day be used to start a cold-fusion reaction (their goal is to get LFEX to 10 petawatts). For a closer look at the Petawatt laser, check out this episode of FW: Thinking. In 1977, the U.S. Air Force created COIL, a chemical oxygen-iodine laser that produce a megawatt of laser power (1,000,000 watts). COIL was so massive, it need to be mounted on a 747 jet. COIL was supposed to be capable of targeting and destroying missiles, but the tracking systems required to take down a missile in flight weren't up to par. In May of this year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System, a "portable" laser system has enough power to destroy missiles using only 75 kW of power. Individual cells can be combined into one beam to increase the power, and are small enough to be mounted on a drone.

Learn More:

How A Laser Weapon Works (NY Times)
"The beam of light part is basically accurate - that's what a laser produces, although in this case the light is not in the visible part of the spectrum. But the Navy weapon does not blast anything; instead, it heats its target, bombarding it with light particles until it ablates, ignites or otherwise is damaged. It is death by a bazillion photons."

Use of plane-mounted lasers could take a while, lawmaker says (Airforce Times)
"Despite advancements in technology, there might not be political will to start equipping Air Force planes with lasers, according to Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., co-chair of the Congressional Directed Energy Caucus."