"Star Wars"-style laser blasts are moving from the stuff of science fiction to science reality.
Scientists have given us a first glimpse of what a real laser bullet could look like.
A Polish research team from the Polish Academy of Sciences Institute of Physical Chemistry Laser Center and the University of Warsaw, has filmed a real life laser blast in detail.
Lasers, also known as directed energy technologies, could be very useful to the military. Other recent advances in this space include vehicle mounted drone slayers such as the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) and the Ground-Based Air Defense Directed Energy On-the-Move program, known as GBAD, as well as the aircraft-mounted Aero-adaptive aero-optic Beam Control (ABC) laser turret.
Kinetic strike weapons are important, but can be very expensive. Instead of destroying targets with explosives, kinetic strike weapons collide with a target at mega speeds to destroy it.
Lasers could give the military a much cheaper alternative firepower and be used to intercept threats like missiles and enemy UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones) .
Capturing laser blasts
Compact enough to fit on a desktop, the more than 10-terawatt laser, working in femtosecond pulses, gave the Polish research team a chance to film the passage of an ultra-short laser blast through the air.
It’s not easy to capture laser bullets on film.
In a statement, team leader for laser construction Dr. Yuriy Stepanenko explained that "If you wanted to film a single light impulse to move as slowly on film as in our recording, you would have to use a camera operating at a speed of a billion frames per second."
Cameras recording billions of frames per second in one sequence were not available.
The team solved this problem by adapting a camera synchronized with the laser pulses of about ten shots per second. A different laser pulse can be seen in each frame of their film.
Once challenges of capturing laser blasts on film are overcome, it turns out the clips of the real thing show that some movies, television and video games often got it pretty spot on.
What does it look like?
With the laser bullet, the laser light appears as a blue glow.
The color we see is the filament, or plasma fiber that forms alongside the pulse. In the air, there is ionized matter. As the laser light travels through the air it passes this matter, ionizes atoms it encounters and creates filament.
So can laser blasts look white in real life?
"It is worth noting that although the light we are shooting from the laser is in the near infrared range, a laser beam like this travelling through the air changes color to white,” explained Stepanenko. “This happens since the interaction of the pulse with the plasma generates light of many different wavelengths. Received simultaneously, these waves give the impression of white."
In Poland, the new laser’s light pulses could be used to remotely test pollution in the atmosphere.
The U.S. hunt for the ultimate laser weapon
In the United States, the military continues to make massive strides in laser development.
In the past two months alone, three key laser announcements were made: two ground vehicle laser systems that can protect ground troops by shooting down enemy UAVs and a 360 degree laser turret for aircraft.
Boeing’s 10-kilowatt laser weapon, the HEL MD, which is mounted on a heavy truck, shot down more than 150 drones, rockets and other simulated enemy targets in its most recent round of tests in September.
Controlled by an Xbox-like controller and laptop, it can successfully target threats even in the most challenging conditions, like fog and rain.
The laser makes a super focused and hugely powerful invisible beam of light. The beam can follow moving targets in the sky such as enemy drones and missiles and take them down with precisely-placed rounds.
Provided the batteries stay charged, this laser can destroy threats indefinitely.
The Navy already has a state of the art ship-mounted laser weapon, and in August, the Office of Naval Research gave Raytheon an $11 million contract to advance its vehicle-mounted laser program.
The Ground-Based Air Defense Directed Energy On-the-Move program, or GBAD, will be mounted on Marines’ Humvees and light tactical ground vehicles. GBAD will provide firepower against UAVs targeting Marines on the ground.
The system is expected to unleash at least 25 kilowatts of energy – twice as powerful as many comparable laser systems.
And last month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's ABC aircraft laser turret achieved very successful results in tests.
DARPA is working on the project with Lockheed Martin, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the University of Notre Dame.
ABC is an aircraft turret that fires high-energy lasers at enemy aircraft and missiles from a full 360 degrees.
Mounted on U.S. military aircraft, the lasers will be able to engage enemy missiles above, below and behind the aircraft.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.