Defense officials want to test a neutral particle-beam in orbit in fiscal 2023 as part of a ramped-up effort to explore various types of space-based weaponry. They’ve asked for $304 million in the 2020 budget to develop such beams, more powerful lasers, and other new tech for next-generation missile defense. Such weapons are needed, they say, to counter new missiles from China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. But just figuring out what might work is a difficult technical challenge.
So the Pentagon is undertaking two studies. The first is a $15 million exploration of whether satellites outfitted with lasers might be able to disable enemy missiles coming off the launch pad. Defense officials have said previously that these lasers would need to be in the megawatt class. They expect to finish the study within six months.
They’re also pouring money into a study of space-based neutral particle beams, a different form of directed energy that disrupts missiles with streams of subatomic particles traveling close to light speed — as opposed to lasers, whose photons travel at light speed.
On Wednesday, officials speaking to reporters at the Pentagon voiced guarded confidence that they would result in something that would in fact be deployable.
It’s not the first time that the Department has looked at such weapons. In 1989, the U.S. launched a neutral particle beam into space, as part of an experiment called BEAR, for Beam Accelerator Aboard a Rocket.
The experiment report described it as modestly successful: “The BEAR flight has demonstrated that accelerator technology can be adapted to a space environment. This first operation of an [neutral particle beam] accelerator in space uncovered no unexpected physics.”
But there’s a big difference between a successful experiment and an affordably deployable weapon. As part of the earlier effort, several companies produced prototype designs. The weapons they sketched were enormous. One was 72 feet long.
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