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Game-changing technology

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The latest – better than science fiction – technology is researched and developed in Albuquerque’s backyard, at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base.

Rocket scientists, physicists and other researchers have two focuses, or directorates: Directed Energy, which harnesses lasers and microwaves, and Space Vehicles, which manage and surveil an increasingly cluttered atmosphere.

Researchers set up a spacecraft for system level testing in one of the Air Force Research Laboratory's Space Vehicles Directorate's thermal vacuum chambers. This test evaluates the performance of the spacecraft in orbit conditions. The temperatures of the chamber walls are controlled to simulate on-orbit conditions while lamps are used to mimic solar heating. (Courtesy Of Air Force Research Laboratory)

Researchers set up a spacecraft for system level testing in one of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate’s thermal vacuum chambers. This test evaluates the performance of the spacecraft in orbit conditions. The temperatures of the chamber walls are controlled to simulate on-orbit conditions while lamps are used to mimic solar heating. (Courtesy Of Air Force Research Laboratory)

Called “game-changing technology,” the scientists work to expand the Air Force’s capabilities to keep the country safe.

Some of those projects include technology that allows space imaging from the ground and weapons that use laser and microwave energy that can zero in on a target without collateral damage.

Directed Energy

“The Directed Energy Directorate leads the development of game-changing high-energy laser and high-power microwave technologies to protect aircraft and the homeland from missile threats,” says Jorge Beraun, a project leader, adding that the directorate “contributes to the Air Force space superiority by advancing optics and photonics (light) science to enable ground-based imaging of earth-orbiting satellites, using telescopes in New Mexico and Hawaii.”

Recently the directorate provided high resolution images to NASA to locate an external coolant leak on the International Space Station, allowing astronauts to fix the problem, according to the website, kirtland.af.mil/afrl.

Another successful project, CHAMP, or the Counter-Electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project, has been passed to warfighters, he says.

According to the website, CHAMP is an unmanned system capable of flying into a contested area and disabling an adversary’s electronic systems. It employs a high-power radio frequency technology. Its proven capability allows the Air Force to defeat and disable the enemy’s electronic systems without bullets or explosives, completely avoiding damage to buildings or danger to life.

Another project that should soon be tested against targets, the demonstrator laser weapon system, works to develop lasers that can destroy smaller aerial targets, such as mortars and missiles, Beraun added.

Space Vehicles

At the other Air Force Research Laboratory, the Space Vehicles Directorate, Chief Scientist Greg Spanjers says the cutting-edge research there opens up new space capabilities for the U.S. Department of Defense. In that regard they have transferred technology into every Department of Defense spacecraft and most commercial aircraft, he says. “To test these new capabilities, AFRL has integrated and flown 15 major research spacecraft from Kirtland Air Force Base over the last 20 years.”

For example, the successful ANGELS, or Automated Navigation and Guidance Experience for Local Space, which fields small, maneuverable satellites that can observe other satellites in space, has become part of the Air Force Space Command, he says.

Another example of the directorate’s success is the Roll-Out Solar Array, or ROSA, a new architecture that reduces the volume of stored solar cells. The smaller units improve satellite survivability in space and reduce launch costs, according to the website.

The heritage of the Space Vehicles Directorate includes balloon technology in the 1940s, space weather prediction in the 1950s and microsatellites and solar power technologies in the 1990s.

Local impact

The two directorates are part of the larger Air Force Research Laboratory Organization, with directorates that include human performance, aerospace systems, information, munitions, sensors and other research at worldwide sites.

Spanjers says that more than 1,800 people —— civilians, military and on-site contractors —— make up the team at both of the KAFB directorates. According to a report from the University of New Mexico, the two research laboratories have an economic impact of $536 million and indirectly support 3,700 jobs in the area, he says.

The two directorates have worked and won awards for reaching out to New Mexico students in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. More than 77,000 New Mexico students from kindergarteners to seniors have participated. At the undergraduate university level about 350 students work on research each year.

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