Main menu


Russians build lasers to blind satellites – expert explains sinister technology

satellite laser illustration

A sufficiently powerful laser beam can blind a spy satellite.

According to a recent report in The Space Review, Russia is building a new ground-based laser facility to interfere with satellites orbiting overhead. The basic idea is simple: flood the optical sensors of foreign spy satellites with laser light to blind them.

Laser technology has evolved to the point where this sort of anti-satellite defense is arguably plausible. However, there is limited evidence indicating which countries have successfully tested such lasers.

If the Russian government can build it, a laser like this could shield large parts of the country from sight of satellites with optical sensors. We are also gearing up for the ominous potential of laser weapons that can transform.

How a laser works

A laser is a device for producing a narrow beam of directed energy. The first laser was developed in his 1960s. Since then, several types have been created that use different physical mechanisms to produce photons or particles of light.

Gas lasers deliver large amounts of energy into specific molecules such as carbon dioxide. Chemical lasers are driven by specific chemical reactions that release energy. Solid-state lasers use customized crystalline materials to convert electrical energy into photons. In all lasers, photons are then amplified by passing through a special type of material called a gain medium and focused into a coherent beam by a beam director.

Laser physics explained.

laser effect

Depending on the photon intensity and wavelength, a directed beam of energy formed by a laser can produce different effects at its target. For example, a laser can deliver light to its target if the photons are in the visible part of the spectrum.

If the stream of high-energy photons is large enough, the laser can heat, vaporize, melt, or even burn the target material. A laser’s power level, the distance between the laser and its target, and the ability to focus the beam on the target are all important factors in determining the target’s ability to deliver these effects.

laser application

The various effects produced by lasers are widely applied in everyday life, such as laser pointers, printers, DVD players, retinal and other medical surgeries, and industrial manufacturing processes such as laser welding and cutting. Researchers are developing lasers as an alternative to radio technology to enhance communications between spacecraft and the ground.

Lasers are also widely applied in military operations. The best known is the Airborne Laser (ABL), which the US military was supposed to use to shoot down ballistic missiles. ABL included a very large, high-power laser mounted on a Boeing 747. The program was ultimately doomed by the challenges associated with thermal management and maintenance of chemical lasers.

Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed

The US military conducted an experiment to equip a large jet aircraft with a powerful laser, aiming to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles.Credit: US Missile Defense Agency

A more successful military application is the Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM) system, used to protect aircraft from heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles. As the missile approaches the aircraft, the LAIRCM shines light from a solid-state laser onto the missile sensor, blinding the weapon and making it lose sight of its target.

The evolving capabilities of solid-state lasers are proliferating new military applications. The U.S. military equips Army trucks and Navy ships with lasers to defend against smaller targets such as drones, mortar shells, and other threats. The Air Force is researching the use of lasers on aircraft for defensive and offensive purposes.

Russian laser

A new Russian laser facility with a good reputation is called Kalina. This is intended to dazzle and temporarily blind the satellite’s optical sensors gathering information overhead. Similar to his LAIRCM in the US, blinding light requires saturating the sensor with enough light to prevent it from working. To achieve this goal, a sufficient amount of light must be accurately delivered to the satellite sensors. This is not an easy task given the very large distances and the fact that the laser beam must first pass through the Earth’s atmosphere.

Pointing lasers precisely into the far reaches of space is nothing new. for example,[{” attribute=””>NASA’s Apollo 15 mission in 1971 placed meter-sized reflectors on the Moon that are targeted by lasers on Earth to provide positioning information. Delivering enough photons over large distances comes down to the laser power level and its optical system.

Kalina reportedly operates in a pulsed mode in the infrared and produces about 1,000 joules per square centimeter. By comparison, a pulsed laser used for retinal surgery is only about 1/10,000th as powerful. Kalina delivers a large fraction of the photons it generates across the large distances where satellites orbit overhead. It is able to do this because lasers form highly collimated beams, meaning the photons travel in parallel so the beam doesn’t spread out. Kalina focuses its beam using a telescope that has a diameter of several meters.

Spy satellites using optical sensors tend to operate in low-Earth orbit with an altitude of a few hundred kilometers. It generally takes these satellites a few minutes to pass over any specific point on the Earth’s surface. This requires Kalina to be able to operate continuously for that long while maintaining a permanent track on the optical sensor. These functions are carried out by the telescope system.

Based on the reported details of the telescope, Kalina would be able to target an overhead satellite for hundreds of miles of its path. This would make it possible to shield a very large area – on the order of 40,000 square miles (roughly 100,000 square kilometers) – from intelligence gathering by optical sensors on satellites. Forty thousand square miles is roughly the area of the state of Kentucky.

Russia claims that in 2019 it fielded a less capable truck-mounted laser dazzling system called Peresvet. However, there is no confirmation that it has been used successfully.

Laser power levels are likely to continue to increase, making it possible to go beyond the temporary effect of dazzling to permanently damaging the imaging hardware of sensors. While laser technology development is heading in that direction, there are important policy considerations associated with using lasers in this way. Permanent destruction of a space-based sensor by a nation could be considered a significant act of aggression, leading to a rapid escalation of tensions.

Lasers in space

Of even greater concern is the potential deployment of laser weapons in space. Such systems would be highly effective because the distances to targets would likely be significantly reduced, and there is no atmosphere to weaken the beam. The power levels needed for space-based lasers to cause significant damage to spacecraft would be significantly reduced in comparison to ground-based systems.

Additionally, space-based lasers could be used to target any satellite by aiming lasers at propellant tanks and power systems, which, if damaged, would completely disable the spacecraft.

As technology advances continue, the use of laser weapons in space becomes more likely. The question then becomes: What are the consequences?

Written by Iain Boyd, Professor of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder.

This article was first published in The Conversation.The Conversation