Aiming lasers at the sky could get you 14 years in prison

laser pointers @Two years ago, a Southern California man named Sergio Rodriguez kept pointing a laser at a helicopter. Result: Two months ago he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. To date, it’s the severest punishment for an offense to which many are oblivious.

Of the 17,725 reported US laser strike incidents from 2005 through 2013, just 134 arrests have been made. Thus, among reported incidents – a small fraction of the actual number –there’s less than a one percent chance of getting caught. (Those 134 arrests resulted in 80 convictions.) Time to look more closely at those innocent-seeming handheld lasers.

In 1957, Columbia University graduate student Gordon Gould figured out a way to make light photons march in unison: a phenomenon predicted a half-century earlier by Albert Einstein. Two years later, he coined the term LASER in his paper titled “The LASER: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” At this time, Bell Labs were also furiously trying to find a way to make light waves pulse in unison. When they built the first usable laser in 1960, there ensued a patent fight that wasn’t resolved for 17 years. Historians still debate who was the laser’s inventor.


Nobody foresaw how quickly and ubiquitously this invention would find its way into our daily lives, nor how inexpensive it would rapidly become. In a mere 14 years, the Uniform Product Code (UPC), with its black bars separated by varying spaces, had been created and agreed upon. The National Cash Register Company reportedly installed a test system at Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, near its factory producing the equipment. On June 26, 1974 at 8:01 a.m., Clyde Dawson pulled a ten-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum out of his basket and it was scanned by Sharon Buchanan. This was the first commercial appearance of the UPC. The pack of gum and the receipt are now on display in Washington’s Smithsonian Institution.

Supermarket lasers, like those in CD players, use about five milliwatts, which is also the legal limit for handheld devices like lecture pointers. Those in DVD players use up to ten milliwatts, while DVD burners require 100 milliwatts. Lasers used in surgery employ 30,000 to 100,000 milliwatts – meaning 30 to 100 watts – to cut effortlessly through flesh.

Everyday five-milliwatt red lasers remain the favorite for pointers and cat toys, and are the least expensive at a few dollars apiece. These, however, do not create a visible beam in the night sky. That’s because their linearly polarized emissions can’t efficiently illuminate airborne dust or tiny water drops to reflect light back to the user.

For a visible straight-line “ray” you need a green laser or one of the newer blue or violet ones, which are all circularly polarized. Since green is perceived far more readily than any other color, it’s the only one that can create a visible beam using just a legal five milliwatts. But in bright moonlight or in light-polluted cities, a 30-milliwatt or higher green laser is desirable to create a nice visible beam.

Even five-milliwatt lasers, however, are inherently dangerous if pointed at an eye. Laser light is so concentrated that it can produce eye damage in a fraction of a second.

The past decade has seen a huge increase in young people buying super-boosted lasers of 20, 50 or even 100 milliwatts. These are fabulous tools for showing off constellations, and I’ve employed them since the ’80s. Companies like Wicked Lasers, exploiting the light-saber battles seen in Star Wars, produce ever-more-powerful models with teen-friendly names like Spyder and Krypton.

In Arizona two weeks ago, I tried out three, owned by my friend Matt, with green and blue light. One was a 1,000-milliwatt model: a full watt! These pop dark-colored balloons instantly. Their mere reflections off nearby surfaces are dangerous to look at. These handheld devices are available to anyone over the Internet for $300 or so.

At night, without much thought for the consequences, people point them at passing planes. Inside the cockpit, pilots are suddenly incapacitated – totally blinded for several seconds. In some cases the pilot could not continue his or her duties, as headache and dizziness persisted for hours. No one has yet been permanently blinded, but with the lasers getting increasingly powerful, this will only be a matter of time.

Last year, President Obama signed into law a penalty of five years in prison for the offense of pointing a laser at a plane. (The Rodriguez sentence of 14 years was meted out because of that man’s “willfulness,” meaning that he hadn’t done it obliviously.)

Bottom line: Be very careful with lasers. Tell anyone you know who has one of the eye hazard to themselves and their friends, and the great peril of obliviously pointing it toward the sky.

Want to know more? To read Bob Berman’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at

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