Boeing, working alongside the US Missile Defense Agency, has successfully fired the Airborne Laser (ABL) weapon system's tracking laser in-flight at an airborne target for the first time.

During Thursday's (15 March) test, the modified Boeing 747-400F took off from Edwards Air Force Base, California, and used its infrared sensors, part of ABL's Boeing-developed battle management system, to find the simulated missile exhaust generated by an instrumented target board located on the US Air Force's NC-135E Big Crow test aircraft (pictured).

The ABL aircraft then pointed and fired its track illuminator laser (TILL) at the target to gather target-tracking data, a key step in a missile engagement. The TILL, a solid-state laser, is part of ABL's beam control/fire control system, developed by Lockheed Martin.

boeing airborne laser
©Hector Antonio Rivera

"The Airborne Laser team has successfully transitioned to the next major test phase, completing the first in a series of in-flight laser firings at an airborne target," says Pat Shanahan, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems.

"This first firing confirms that ABL can find an airborne target, precisely fix the track illuminator laser onto that target and use the laser firing results to track the target. This is an important step toward demonstrating the aircraft's ability to engage a flying target."

boeing airborne laser 2
©Hector Antonio Rivera

In upcoming flight tests, ABL will fire its other solid-state laser, the beacon illuminator laser, in conjunction with the TILL to demonstrate the ability to compensate for the atmospheric turbulence that the missile-killing, high-energy chemical laser would encounter in its path to the target.

The aircraft then will complete an engagement sequence by firing both illuminator lasers and using a surrogate high-energy laser to simulate a target shootdown.

When these tests are completed, the programme will install the actual Northrop Grumman-built high-energy laser in the aircraft to prepare for the first intercept test against an in-flight ballistic missile in 2009.

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