nancy Techie Tues 9-2-97

Cannons in the sky? Not yet, but the USA has taken the first step by firing more lasers at satellites. “Just testing!” they say.

The Army’s Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL), was fired at a satellite to collect data on the effects of laser beams on sensitive satellite equipment. The laser, built by TRW, is an offshoot of the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars.” Is this the first step in the militarization of space and a potential violation of treaties?

Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Potter said “we achieved the goal of the experiment, which was to determine the vlnerability of U.S. satellites. There was no permanent damage to the satellite or the (on-board) sensor.” The Miniature Sensor Technology Integration (MSTI-3) satellite was “illuminated” by a high-powered, ground-based laser housed at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico shortly after dark on Friday evening.

The MISTI satellite was selected as the target because it is scheduled to go into “eclipse phase” on Thursday and become useless thereafter. The satellite was originally designed to provide thermal sensing data for a global terrain mapping project.

On October 2 Defense Secretary William Cohenapproved the plan to use MIRACL to illuminate the satellite. The test had been delayed several times by cloudy weather before Friday’s shot.

MIRACL produces a beam of light six feet across using millions of watts from burning fuel. An extended beam of light from the laser would be capable of burning up a target.

For this test, the satellite was illuminated twice. The first firing lasted for less than a second to simulate an accidental illumination. The second firing lasted for about 10 seconds at various power levels to simulate an actual ground-based laser attack on a satellite. But the MIRACL laser never went above 50 percent power during the course of the test.

The Army has test-fired lasers at missiles and other objects in test flights before, but it has never tested them against a satellite. The Russian government said that the testing constitutes a potential threat to Russian satellites but the Pentagon says the illumination would not violate any treaties and was not an attempt to build an anti-satellite weapon. Instead, the U.S. points to the proliferation of powerful lasers around the world and their potential ability to kill U.S. satellites in times of crisis. The long-term goal is to find ways to shield the satellites from such an attack.