Observatories are inherently cool – they allow humanity to look beyond our terrestrial confines and contemplate the mysteries of the universe. The Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, however, takes your conventional astronomy telescope, dials it up to 11, and WEAPONIZES it.
The facility, which works as a division of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate, has a primary mission of developing and demonstrating optical wavefront control technologies.
What does that mean in English? You know how stars seem to twinkle as you stare at them? (If not, surely you’ve heard the 19th century lullaby “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”) That twinkling is known in scientific terms as scintillation. As the light from a star moves through the various layers of the atmosphere, fluctuations in air density, typically related to temperature gradients, distort the brightness and position of the image you see. In addition to distorting stars that are light-years away, atmospheric turbulence makes it hard to track objects that are much closer to Earth, such as small satellites.
According to the Air Force, the laboratory’s 11.5-foot-diameter telescope uses a variety of sensors, computers, and flexible mirrors to counteract that turbulence. For instance, to control the temperature in the immediate vicinity of the telescope and to maximize its image quality, the facility is climate-controlled by a system that removes heat using a pit filled with up to 4.5 million pounds of ice. The mirror of the telescope itself weighs 4,500 pounds and its surface has been polished down to 21 nanometers – about 3,000 times thinner than a human hair.
The telescope can aim its lasers near a star in the sky and use the beams to excite molecules and atoms in the air, causing them to glow brightly. The telescope then uses the glowing molecules as points of comparison with which to continuously adjust its mirrors, thereby sharpening the image. This is great for allowing astronomers to look at distant stars, but it can also be used to track something the size of a basketball 1,000 miles away in space.
Once you’ve compensated for atmospheric turbulence to achieve that high level of clarity seeing things – that is, receiving beams of light from the thing you’re looking at – you can also use the same technology to send energy in the opposite direction, turbulence-free.
In other words, you can aim at that basketball floating 1,000 miles away and use the telescope as a sight for a high-powered, directed-energy weapon to vaporize the little orb.
In an interview with the New York Times in 2006, Col. Gregory Vansuch, who supervised Starfire research, said the facility used lasers and the process of atmospheric compensation to target satellites “all the time.” (With the satellite owner’s permission, of course.)
We have no idea what exactly the military is currently working with, but DefenseNews.com reported that between 2010 and 2014, a 10-kilowatt commercial welding laser was used in tests at White Sands Missile Range to shoot down unmanned aircraft and mortar rounds. The Navy is presently installing HELIOS, a 60-kilowatt laser made by Lockheed Martin that can potentially ramp up to 150 kilowatts, on its ships. We’d be surprised if there wasn’t something as good or better at Starfire. Ronald Reagan would be proud.
For obvious reasons, you can’t just go wandering around the Starfire Optical Range or Kirtland Air Force Base. But next time you’re in Albuquerque, you can look up at the sky and rest assured that the technology to obliterate any basketballs flying towards you from space is close at hand.