Amid continuing controversy over President Reagan’s “Star Wars” plan, the Pentagon recently awarded a large research contract to the University of Texas at Dallas for work on a gamma-ray laser. It will take years to find out if the new laser can even be built, but the research has already produced spin-off benefits lor the Dallas economy.
Dr. Carl B. Collins is the director of the Center for Quantum Electronics at UTD. In 1975 Collins founded the center, which in three years developed two new laser devices. Then a wild idea popped up. “A student asked a question: why couldn’t we do the same thing with gamma rays as we do with visible-light lasers?” Collins says.
The notion seemed plausible. Visible-light lasers are used to make the silicon-chip brains of computers. Laser beams are produced when the right kind of substance is energized and fires off an intense ray of light. Could a substance he found that would give off gamma rays like that?
So Collins and his crew then wrote a dictionary-thick proposal and took it to the Institute of Defense Analysis, a Washington, D.C., think tank that screens technical proposals for SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative. “It was one of the most grueling processes I’ve ever been through,” Collins says, “SDI is not just throwing their money around. They’re making a careful, very meticulous investigation of the proposals submitted to them.”
On July 23, 1986, the center got Si.8 million from SDI to finance research until the end of the year. They expect to get $10 million before the contract expires in 1988. All that money will be used to test three of twenty-nine “candidate” materials. “To some extent it depends on the luck of the draw,” he says.
The odds are steep, but worth the cost to military strategists. A small satellite equipped with such a laser could shoot a ray to determine whether an enemy warhead was real or a decoy. Gamma rays are absorbed by heavy metals, the sort real warheads are made of, but pass through the light metals that decoys are made of. Once the gamma-ray laser sorts out the lethal warheads, a destructive laser or particle beam could then be used to destroy them.
The center’s work could have other military uses. Gamma rays, which are a thousand times narrower than visible-light rays, could etch transistors onto computer chips a million limes closer together than is possible today. Such a breakthrough could lead to supercomputers that could be used to coordinate a space war.
Even if the research never helps to create Reagan’s nuclear umbrella, it will still bring results. Already, the center has developed a flash X-ray machine to take stop-action X-rays of moving joints, so doctors would know exactly where to slice into a damaged knee. But even that’s not the main payoff of the center’s research, which, Collins says, “makes trained young minds available to the local economy base” and provides a source of intelligence for Texas Instruments and Electronic Data Systems.