SDI Directed-Energy Weapon (DEW) Programs: X-Ray Laser – By: Jose Diaz
An early focus of the direct-energy weapons (DEW) programs project was a curtain of X-ray lasers, a device that emits light (electromagnetic radiation) through a process of optical amplification based on the stimulated emission of photons, powered by nuclear explosions, occurring as a result of the rapid release of energy from an intentionally high-speed nuclear reaction.
The curtain to be deployed using a series of missiles launched from submarines or, later on, satellites, during the critical seconds following a Soviet attack. The satellites would be powered by built-in warheads–in theory, the energy from the warhead detonation would be used to pump a series of laser emitters in the missiles or satellites, allowing each satellite to shoot down many incoming warheads simultaneously. The attraction of this approach was that it was thought to be faster than an optical laser, which could not only shoot down warheads one at a time, limiting the number of warheads each laser could destroy in the short time “window” of an attack.
However, on March 26, 1983, the first test, known as the Cabra event, was performed in an underground shaft and resulted in marginally positive readings that could be dismissed as being caused by a faulty detector. Since a nuclear explosion was used as their powers source, the detector was destroyed during the experiment and the results therefore could not be confirmed. Technical criticism based upoin unclassified calculations suggested that the X-ray laser would be of at best marginal use for missile defense. Such critics often cite the X-ray laser system as being the primary focus of DI, with its apparent failure being a main reason to oppose the program. However, the laser was never more than one of the many systems being researched for ballistic missile defense.
Despite the apparent failure of the Cabra test, the long term legacy of the X-ray laser program us the knowledge again while conducting the research. A parallel developmental program advanced laboratory X-ray lasers for biological and the creation of 3D holograms of living programs. Other spin-offs include research on advanced materials like Safe Emulsion Agar gel (SEAgel), one of a class of high-tech foam materials known as aerogels, a synthetic porous material derived from a gel, in which the liquid component of the gel has been replaced with a gas, the Electron-Beam Ion Trap facility for physics research, and enhanced techniques for early detection of breast cancer.