US military researchers are developing a lightning laser weapon intended to strike frontline targets in the same way that naturally-produced lightning beams hit objects on the ground.
In a lab at the US Army's New Jersey-based Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, the research team is exploring how lasers can be used to generate a highly-charged plasma pathway in the air, which electricity can then track.
The laser-guided lightning weapon they're now working on has the potential to be exceptionally precise, since it's predisposed to hit targets better at conducting electricity than the ground. Just as real lightning forks off to hit specific ground-based targets, the weapon's beam, too, naturally depart from its flightpath to meet areas of least resistance. Initial tests have shown that the system's lightning bolts strike with 50 billion watts of power and the shorter the beams, the more intense their firepower.
Lightning Laser Weapon
"If a laser puts out a pulse with modest energy, but the time is incredibly tiny, the power can be huge", the project's head researcher, George Fischer, reports in a US Army press release on the lightning laser weapon published in late June 2012. He continues: "During the laser pulse it can be putting out more power than a large city needs, but the pulse only lasts for two-trillionths of a second. For very powerful and high intensity laser pulses, the air acts like a lens, keeping the light in a small-diameter filament.
"We use an ultra-short-pulse laser of modest energy to make a laser beam so intense that it focuses on itself in air and stays focused in a filament."
US Army Lightning Weapon
Converting the background science into a fully-functioning prototype weapon has proved a challenge, as the US Army lightning weapon press release describes. For example, Fischer and his team have learnt to stick to a low power setting prior to the beam being targeted. If they didn't, then there'd be a serious risk of the laser exploding.
This highly specialised military technology is among a number of future weapons projects being progressed by US military researchers at the present moment. Others include the US Navy's railgun and the US Army's hypersonic weapon, capable of reaching any part of the world within 60 minutes.
Image copyright US Army