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What unique laser research is on the horizon?

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Posted Date: 05/02/2016

In honor of National Star Wars Day (May the Fourth Be With You), HDIAC is asking its community to discuss unique or novel uses for lasers. For example, astronomers are using lasers to better showcase the universe. What other unique laser research is on the horizon?

The Sodium Guidestar at the Air Force Research Laboratory Directed Energy Directorate's Starfire Optical Range. Researchers with AFRL use the Guidestar laser for real-time, high-fidelity tracking and imaging of satellites too faint for conventional adaptive optical imaging systems.The SOR's world-class adaptive optics telescope is the second largest telescope in the Department of Defense. (Image courtesy of U.S. Air Force)


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Just like Velcro was a successful spin-off from the NASA space programs, laser technology developed under President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars Program") has had an impact elsewhere. The astronomy application pictured in this week's question (allowing terrestrial telescopes to actively compensate for atmospheric distortions) was just one of them. The Free Electron Laser (an optical device that generates coherent light directly from a high power electron beam injected into a specially configured magnetic field) has shown promise for applications such as medical treatments and shipboard defense. The device is electrically powered, and since it does not rely on a laser medium (it operates in a vacuum), it is broadly tunable, so appropriate wavelengths that propagate in the maritime environment are accessible. While the FEL never achieved "Death Star" power levels, the SDI research advanced the state-of-the-art of that technology, opening the door for a number of other potential applications.

Donald R. Ponikvar, PhD
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Advancing Laser technology is important because it has the potential to improve multiple techniques and applications, including in areas such as scientific research, medical advancements, defense systems, manufacturing processes, etc.  There is an increased push to advance laser technology; for example, the Department of Defense recently awarded the University of New Mexico with a 7.5 million dollar grant to expand on the university’s existing laser projects, which include research to investigate lasers with higher beam quality and consistency.

Laser technology developments and research are being performed in multiple areas. Rice University’s bioengineers have recently modified laser cutter printing technology to create complex 3D products from a wider range of powdered materials and biomaterials for regenerative medicine research. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has recently developed a handheld, portable laser torch that is designed for welding and brazing metals in manufacturing purposes in tight spaces.

The Department of Defense is looking into directed energy sources for lethal and non-lethal weaponry; for example, lasers are currently being used by the U.S. Air Force as infrared countermeasure systems and the Air Force is advancing this technology for developing offensive laser technology for gunships. The U.S. Army hopes to have more effective high energy laser weapons to protect against rockets, artillery, mortar, UAVs, etc. in place by 2023.  The Office of Naval Research’s Ground-Based Air Defense Directed Energy On-the-Move program is researching a vehicle-mounted high-energy laser that uses radar to locate unmanned aerial system targets and pinpoints UAS target for destruction by the laser.