Plasma Mirror's Agility Reflects NRL Innovation

4/19/1996 - 36-96r
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It looks like a sheet of cotton candy, pink and thinner than a butter knife, pulsing to life for microseconds, then disappearing, only to reappear elsewhere in microseconds, repeating thusly, over and over again. It is mesmerizing.

It is also beautiful visually and by virtue of its potential as a military asset. It is formed as electron beams stream through a low pressure gas and ionize the background. The electrons are emitted by a long, thin cathode and stream through the gas in tight helical orbits due to a low magnetic field. The generation of the long, thin beam is significant because it allows NRL scientists to create a smooth plasma surface for Agile Mirror, and a smooth surface is important if one wants to reflect microwave beams off it.

"You can't have a bumpy mirror," said Dr. Robert Meger, Head of the Charged Particles Physics Branch, Plasma Physics Division.

The Agile Mirror creates interesting physics challenges, according to Dr. Meger, and it brings plasma physics to finding a home in the real-world Navy.

"Anti-ship missiles are becoming faster, smarter, and stealthier," Dr. Meger said, "while rapidly proliferating around the globe. To counter this threat a number of different radar or electro-optic sensor systems have been developed and deployed, each addressing some aspect of the threat.

"A single high-power, high-frequency, electronically steered, multifunction radar could fulfill most of these missions," Dr. Meger said.

With Agile Mirror technology, a radar system could track multiple targets by successively sampling the different targets according to an appropriate computer algorithm.

Under development since 1993 by NRL's Plasma Physics Division, Agile Mirror represents new, technically feasible technology which carries high risk but offers high payoff, Dr. Meger said.

If NRL's continuing developmental efforts are successful, the Agile Mirror will be ready for transition to Advanced Technology Demonstration.

One day in the 21st Century, Agile Mirror-based radar could serve as the eyes of the Fleet, and plasma physics will, indeed, have found a home in the real world Navy.

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