How to Build the Ultimate Naval Defense: Uber-Powerful Lasers as presented by: Discover Magazine

The U.S. Navy wants to put powerful lasers on its ships to shoot down artillery shells and even cruise missiles at the speed of light (and really, who wouldn't). But there are a few scientific details to sort out before sailors can deploy the beams. "First we want to make sure the physics is right before throwing buckets of salt water over the thing," says Ed Pogue. Pogue is the program manager for Boeing's free electron laser (FEL) program, potentially the most ambitious laser weapons program since the Pentagon's controversial airborne laser. In that program, the Missile Defense Agency spent billions of dollars and over a decade to get a laser-rigged jumbo jet to destroy a ballistic missile in its boost phase of flight. They eventually succeeded in February 2010, but the Obama administration nixed plans to develop the experiment into a battle-ready weapon. Maybe the Navy's project will meet a better fate. In 5 years, at a cost of $163 million, Boeing hopes to get the physics right and demonstrate an extremely powerful--and hopefully seaworthy--giant laser. It's no small task, in part because the laser they're using is powered by several particle accelerators. Here's an overview of how the Navy's free electron laser works. These are the guts of the high voltage power supply, which provides juice to the electron gun. When the system is fully assembled, the six-foot-high metallic coils will be sealed in a pressurized chamber filled with a gas called sulfur hexafluoride. The massive amounts of power--hundreds of kilovolts--that the coils produce can cause arc discharges, when energy is discharged into the air. The sulfur hexafluoride prevents that from happening because it doesn't conduct electricity as well as air does.

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