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Beyond the X Prize

Winner already working on tourist spacecraft; contest for orbital flight rumored

3 min read

6 October 2004—If you were looking to divine the intentions of the team that won the US $10 million Ansari X Prize for commercial manned space flight on Monday, you’d have found them written on the side of the spacecraft all along. ”N328KF” is painted on the side of SpaceShipOne, a privately built spaceship that flew over the Mojave Desert in California into history by breaching the boundary of space twice in five days. "N" denotes a craft registered in the United States. But the rest of the sequence is a clear reference to the boundary the team sought to break: 328 084 feet, or 328 kilofeet (KF), the English equivalent of the 100-kilometer boundary of space.

For the last year or so, the team, which is led by Burt Rutan and financed by Paul G. Allen, has been telegraphing its intentions for the post X Prize era, too, and these indicators became even more concrete in the euphoria following the X Prize triumph.

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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