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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Fires Laser to Test Weaknesses Of Satellites


WASHINGTON -- Just after dusk in the New Mexican desert, a high-powered U.S. Army laser trained its invisible beam on a U.S. satellite as it emerged from over the horizon to the north.

With a burst of flame and smoke, the hulking device generated a beam that shot up through the atmosphere at the small satellite 420 kilometers above the earth. The test, conducted Friday at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico and announced Monday at the Pentagon, went off successfully, pointing to a possible new direction in warfare.

Weeks after an initial failure, the Pentagon announced, the Army successfully fired its "Miracl" laser, an acronym for the 1980s-vintage Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser, at an aging Air Force satellite.

Neither the satellite nor its target point -- an infrared camera -- was damaged or disabled in the several test firings lasting less than five seconds each. But the Pentagon views the test as concrete proof of a long-held concern: that its own satellites, as well as intelligence, civilian or commercial satellites, are vulnerable to laser weapons.

Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Bob Potter, a Pentagon spokesman, said the laser hit the target camera, which recorded data now being evaluated at White Sands. Had the laser been turned up to full power or trained on its target longer, it could have destroyed the satellite.

But the point of the test was to show that lower-intensity lasers may be able to disable the information-gathering equipment, such as infrared sensors, mounted on U.S. military satellites.

As many as 30 nations may already be able to use low-power lasers to blind the sensors on satellites used by the U.S. military to monitor potentially hostile countries.

The test marks the first time the United States has fired a high-powered laser at a satellite in orbit.

In 1985 Congress explicitly prohibited the laser test, but the Republican-controlled Congress allowed the ban to expire two years ago and enthusiastically supported the laser testing.

Anticipating criticism from opponents of the test, the Pentagon has gone out of its way to stress the defensive nature.

Russia had previously expressed concern about the testing and Tuesday warned the United States against development of an anti-satellite laser weapon, saying this could lead to a new international arms race.

"The Russian side is carefully watching this work and clearly states that this activity is creating growing concern in Moscow," Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Tarasov said.

"Creating an anti-satellite weapon could greatly change the strategic situation," he told reporters, adding that Moscow hoped "the United States will consider all the consequences brought about by a renewal of the arms race."

Washington has denied it is developing an anti-satellite gun, but Tarasov said Moscow was worried that the technology may lead to violations of the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty.

"In recent years, Russia and the United States have shown restraint in this area, which greatly helped control on weapons in this strategic area and that means strengthening stability," he said.