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Big Freakin' Laser Beams In Space 142

schnippy writes "Esquire is running an interesting article on the work on adaptive optics and directed energy being done at the U.S. Air Force's Starfire Optical Observatory. This facility was the subject of a New York Times article earlier this year which suspected the facility was conducting anti-satellite weapons research under the cover of astronomy."
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Big Freakin' Laser Beams In Space

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  • Any word... (Score:5, Funny)

    by GillBates0 ( 664202 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:04PM (#16857694) Homepage Journal
    Any word on how we're going to get sharks up there?
    • With a giant 'Big Boy' of course!
    • by lymond01 ( 314120 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:15PM (#16857920)
      If you'd paid attention to previous Slashdot discussions:

      The space elevator will move too slowly to keep living things from being irradiated by the Van Allen belt surrounding the Earth. The solution is to create a passenger compartment inside a cargo container filled with water, which is a terrific absorber of energy, which in turn can house the sharks.

      Elementary, really...
    • ...obviously. Sheesh, pay attention!
    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      I see no reference to sharks .... either I can't read, or my Firefox search is broke, or I am missing some l33t inside joke.
      • It's an inside joke, for sure, but it's not very l337.
      • by RKBA ( 622932 )
        Yes, it's a l33t inside Slashdot joke that originated with an article long ago about remote controlled sharks. For an explanation, see here [digg.com].
  • by TheSexican ( 796334 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:05PM (#16857714)
    Maybe they are just planning on giving astronauts laser eye surgery from the ground.
  • GDI anyone? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:06PM (#16857730)
    Finally, we have a weapon capable of defeating the Brotherhood of Nod.
  • But sharks can't breathe vacuum...
  • They are going to warm up a bit of Mars.
    Hopefully, they won't "test" it out on targets closer to home first.
  • but when will we see handheld laserguns?
  • do this at home! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Lord Ender ( 156273 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:11PM (#16857834) Homepage
    http://www.vilos.com/lasers/lasers-howto.html [vilos.com]

    That's all you need to build a fire-starting laser out of a DVDRW.

    He leaves off some of the important details, though :-(

    Also, my research suggests this is illegal.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by waferhead ( 557795 )
      Where would this be illegal?

      Does anyone have any experience with peak power on these laser diodes?

      I recall from working with similar units ages ago that it's far less than average power, but still pretty significant.

      (A LED is basically thermally limited, so at a low duty cycle your peak can approach achieve many times the "rated" power...

      Laser diodes used in pulsed mode are nowhere near that, it's a power vs area thing, basically the point at which they blow their tiny mirrors/facets off...)

      I want to blow l
  • by Shadow Wrought ( 586631 ) * <shadow...wrought@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:12PM (#16857862) Homepage Journal
    They are soo sharking Congress on that one.
  • Real Genius (Score:3, Funny)

    by wiggles ( 30088 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:13PM (#16857870)
    Anyone have a taste for popcorn?
  • by Ark ( 7744 )
    Finally my dream of making a house full of popcorn while listening to Tears for Fears will be realized!
  • by count0 ( 28810 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:14PM (#16857898)
    So, is Bruce Sterling's Zenith Angle [sfreviews.net] mentioned? Since among the many things it covers is exactly the idea of anti-satellite weaponization of adaptive optical tech.


  • I for one welcome our new space-laser wielding overlords!
  • by onion2k ( 203094 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:16PM (#16857940) Homepage
    We see through a glass darkly--somewhat like trying to spy on beauty through textured-glass shower doors.

    Ok, forget space, I want a laser-telescope-camera at home right now if it can see through next-doors shower door.
  • by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:18PM (#16857972) Journal
    "This facility was the subject of a New York Times article earlier this year which suspected the facility was conducting anti-satellite weapons research under the cover of astronomy."
    In reality, a lot of astronomy stuff, by its very nature, qualifies as dual-use technology.

    You can use it for star-gazing... or weaponize it without much effort. It's just the nature of the beast.
    • by NSIM ( 953498 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:38PM (#16858366)
      I actually worked for a company that a did a lot of the initial work in designing the storage system used at StarFire (which had some pretty nasty data capture requirements because of the highly "bursty" nature of the data capture.) From what I understood of the limited amount we were told the idea was to use an array of smaller optical telescopes and image analysis software to create a "mosaic" of the overall image that was corrected for atmospheric distortion. While nothing was said at the time, the implication was that this was for ABM, not anti-satellite, i.e. it was to make easier to shoot something down with a laser inside the atmosphere. Of course, the trick was not producing the image per-se, but producing it fast enough to be useful as part of a firing solution, i,.e a crystal clear shot of the target that takes 5 minutes to produce is of limited utility :-) Of course the technology has a number of potential uses, both military and non-military, but that's true of just about any large hi-tech experiment. Given that StarFire is run and funded by the USAF (not NASA or a University institute like JPL), I don't think should come as any great surprise that they are rather more interested in it's military applications.
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by KevinKirmse ( 984586 )
        I worked on the design and deployment of that same storage system. My impression was that the work done at Starfire was multipurpose. The military certainly has a fair number of reasons to have better optical systems. Given that the project was already in progress over six years ago I kind of doubt that the project and current interest in anti satalite systems have much connection.
        • by NSIM ( 953498 )
          You may not remember it Kevin, but you were actually working with me (NSIM=Nik Simpson) :-)
          • I actually work a Starfire now and I remember Kevin, but I don't remember you Nik... What company do you work for?
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by DerekLyons ( 302214 )

        From what I understood of the limited amount we were told

        Of course, the trick was not producing the image per-se, but producing it fast enough to be useful as part of a firing solution, i,.e a crystal clear shot of the target that takes 5 minutes to produce is of limited utility

        I suspect you misunderstood entirely - as a crystal clear picture is pretty useless in generating a firing solution, whether produced in 5 nanoseconds or 5 minutes. To generate a firing solution, you need (at a minimum) relative p

    • You can use it for star-gazing... or weaponize it without much effort. It's just the nature of the beast.

      So... if my optics can image an orbiting object, say a space shuttle (which StarFire can see) then are same optics automatically capable of focusing a directed energy beam at said object? Someone who did more optics in college can clarify this....

      Besides, "StarFire" isn't exactly the name you give to a project that's listening to the chirps of a deep space pulsar - nobody's even trying to fool anybody
  • But can it whistle, or is it still like a goldfish?
  • FTA: "The same electromechanical pistons that shape the adaptive-optics mirrors hold the whirling primary mirror's true shape (to a precision of twenty-one nanometers, three thousand times finer than a human hair) while small, fast-steering mirrors cancel out additional jitter." The accuracy they are able to obtain is amazing. Before you know it, they will be able to fire a small projectile from a satellite and eliminate a target as small as a human. In a few years, enemy leaders will not even be able to g
    • Cool

      Not for the enemy. And by the way, please report to Room 101.

    • "three thousand times finer than a human hair"

      I wish people would quit using this measurement - I'm bald, and I've never measured a hair from any part of my body.
  • by Channard ( 693317 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:36PM (#16858344) Journal
    They're using the telescope to spy on that orange chick from the Teen Titans.
  • by adageable ( 972913 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:38PM (#16858372)
    Hmm... back when I was a graduate student at Penn State in the 90's, we could often see the remote sensing teams testing LIDAR (think RADAR, but with laser light). The laser was quite powerful, seemed to extend all the way up to the heavens, and could be seen for miles around.
    Perhaps I'm just a bit jaded that them "city folks" (aka The New York Times) seems to think that anyone beaming a laser into the sky must want to destroy stuff.
    Hrmpth. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LIDAR [wikipedia.org]
  • The Alan Parson's Project...
  • by powerlord ( 28156 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:54PM (#16858682) Journal
    The British Government have confirmed the existence of their sister program, The Torchwood Institue [wikipedia.org], having recently demonstrated its latest ground to space design over the holidays [wikipedia.org].

    [/remove tongue from cheek]
  • Anyone who's seen Stargate SG-1 knows that the official Air Force term is "Big Honkin'", not "Big Freakin'".
  • Esquire? (Score:3, Funny)

    by CodeMasterPhilzar ( 978639 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @05:11PM (#16858982)
    Isn't that a Men's clothing magazine? Since when do we get technology information from Esquire? That's like going to Dr. Dobbs looking for a pie recipe or Car and Driver for gardening tips.
  • by cbelt3 ( 741637 ) <cbelt@yahooPERIOD.com minus punct> on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @05:42PM (#16859614) Journal
    I worked for a company that delivered a 3.5M BEAM DIRECTOR to AFWL in the 90's. Notice the caps. So why is this a surprise to anyone ? The program was DESIGNED to **CLASSIFIED **** in the **CLASSIFIED*** stage of flight. Of course it has other uses. Beam source was a GPFEL.

    However, trust me on this, it's too damn big to attach to a shark's head. Even a whale shark. A space based shark, maybe, but you'll have a tough time getting something the size of a small skyscraper into orbit. Not to mention the nuke plant to power it.
  • by the_tsi ( 19767 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @06:00PM (#16859930)
    If the USAF uses Starfire, they're going to go out of mana pretty quickly. I hope they have a lot of MP/5 and know when to use that Innervate.
  • The subject line should have said:

    Warming a Very Tiny Piece of Mars For Terraforming

  • If you go look at the web page for the starfire optical range it clearly mentions the "Directed Energy Directorate's Starfire Optical Range". A large number of good observatories are at least partially funded by the Air Force... MRO in New Mexico is a perfect example. Regardless a lot of the information saying these things dates back to 1998 and 2001. The Air Force also has some neat tricks up it sleeve doing optical interferometry (which is especially tricky since you really need to know the position o
  • by metalligoth ( 672285 ) <metalligoth.gmail@com> on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @08:55PM (#16862618)
    Only on Slashdot does a story about space and lasers lead to the tagging system creating one and only one tag: sharks.
  • Oh yes, this was the same USAF facility that photographed the space shuttle Columbia [cnn.com] as it passed overhead minutes before it broke apart during its 2003 entry. They say they took that picture on an 11 year old Mac [macworld.com] which would be almost 15 years old now. Not too surprising that this type of research is going on there, although it is pretty close to Albuquerque.

  • John F. Kennedy's Address at Rice University on the Space Effort (September 12, 1962):

    For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

    I now feel obliged to post that every time people talk about weapons in space.

  • My Starfire Story (Score:4, Informative)

    by rickwood ( 450707 ) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @10:03AM (#16868680)
    I visited the Starfire facility in the mid-'90s. Now, it seems to me that if they'd let me, a long-haired hippie-lookin' mofo who's only reason for being there was I was schtooping the Colonel's daughter and had mentioned in small talk with him that I was interested in lasers and built that nitrogen job out of Scientific American in high school, it can't be that classified. It's not like they said anything about keep your mouth shut or made me sign anything. We did pass through a gate guarded by some serious lookin' dudes who pointed their rifles at me, but they didn't even take my name that I recall.

    After we got to the top of the mountain, we went into the main building. There were a couple of dudes in suits there. I was introduced, but I don't remember who they were. Not sure if they were Congressional types or Pentagon guys or what, but the people who worked there were nice to them so I tried to be on my best behavior. We got a short lecture about the project and some of the photos they had produced were handed around.

    In case you didn't RTFA, the purpose of Starfire is to use a projected laser dot to configure an adaptive-optics mirror to compensate for atmospheric distortion and allow for better terrestrial astronomy. It works pretty damn good too. The photos I saw were very impressive. Better than Hubble in some cases, which they were justifiably very proud of. They sure were a helluva lot cheaper to get than Hubble photos.

    After the lecture we got a tour of the facility. There were several telescopes on the mountain, a couple of which were capable of projecting a laser. The main 'scope had a really neat setup where they could have several experiments going at once and rotate a mirror to pick which one went up the tube. Other than that there were the optical experiment tables, the adaptive-optics setup, the imaging system, and several different kinds of lasers of varying impressive powers.

    Next we went into the main dome. We were informed that the main telescope could depress below 0 degrees and the dome could be lowered in 30 seconds, and raised in two minutes by machine, or ten minutes if the hand cranks had to be employed. At the end of the telescope I spotted a disc with "Raytheon" on it. I casually asked, "What's the radar for?"
    "To make sure there are no aircraft entering the beam path," the tour guide replied. The suit dudes were very surprised by my question so I mostly shut up for the rest of the tour. We then exited the platform so they could open the dome and slew the telescope.

    Next came the control room. There were a bunch of guys in there, some in uniform and some in civvies. The were all business and didn't say much. They showed us the computer that had the ephemeris of every object in orbit down to the size of a quarter. All the computers were UNIX and X Windows, FYI. As a software guy, I thought the interface left something to be desired, but that's just me. Tracking an object with the 'scope was as simple as clicking on the desired target. We watched the 'scope slew through a CCTV monitor located near the target computer. Sadly, conditions were unfavorable for a test firing, so I didn't get to see the big mother fire.

    Last they took us down to the "shack" where the guide-star laser was produced and sent through a smaller scope. The guys in here were friendlier, hippie/scientist types. I rapped with them a little while the brass talked amongst themselves. They were really excited about their laser because it was very powerful and very yellow, which worked out good for their astronomy.

    Understand, the men who worked on this project never, ever said anything about it's use as a weapon. They always talked about it in terms of the astronomy. They had a nice telescope with a honkin' big laser under it, a radar on the front of it, and a computer that could track the 'scope on every object in orbit, up on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, but officially the fact that Starfire could be used as a weapon never occurred to them

1 Angstrom: measure of computer anxiety = 1000 nail-bytes