Are Laser Weapons the Future in Space?

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Nearly Every Sci-Fi Classic Features Some Kind of Laser Weapons. But Are They Possible? And If So Are They the Best Choice?

Marvin the Martian's Laser space weapons

Marvin the Martian’s Laser space weapons

It’s pretty much a given in the realm of Science Fiction that space warriors use laser weapons. I hesitate to call it a law—not wanting to step on Asimov’s toes or anything. But it seems clear that for the most part, if you’re gonna have a battle in space, Hollywood insists that those battles be fought with lasers. Is that the direction we are (or should be) headed, though? How accurate are space fights Hollywood dreams up versus the fights that our newly christened Air Force Space Force will likely face? There are, after all, some real-life limitations that prevent a lot of the flashy effects that make those sci-fi scenes so great. Let’s take a look at some real-life physics, some sci-fi shows that get it completely wrong, and some that are way closer to the mark.

The Physics of Laser Weapons—For Now

Archemedes portrait

Archimedes

History:

Focus, people. No, really. Turns out focus is a big part of why sci-fi writers thought lasers would be the weapons of the future. In fact, scientists and engineers have been trying to harness the power of focused light into some kind of “death ray” for millennia. I refer, of course, to our buddy, the ancient Greek badass, Archimedes.

Archimedes did a lot of really cool things, but one that he’s most famous for in pop culture today is his “death ray.”  If you’re a fan of Mythbusters you’ll most likely know that Adam and Jamie tested Archimedes’ design twice during their tenure on the Discovery Channel.  

The principle behind the “death ray” couldn’t get much simpler. In Archimedes’ time, mirrors were just becoming a thing, and he noticed that if you had a concave mirror, you could focus light and make the heat from its rays more intense. 

Ever use a magnifying glass to start a fire? Then you’re familiar with the concept.

If not, here’s how it works (plus it’s just fun to watch people do this):

Nope. Not magic. It’s science. As the light from the sun passes through the curved lens of the magnifying glass, its beams focus onto a single, intense point. All of the energy from the rays captured by the surface area of the lens converge onto that point and superheat the material to start a fire.

Archimedes knew this principle well and decided to turn it up to eleven. He theorized (and supposedly made) a weapon in the form of a giant, mirrored, inverse parabola. By focusing the parabola just right in direct sunlight, Archimedes knew that he could focus a great amount of energy on incoming ships, and even set them on fire. So, in a sense, Archimedes (as far as we know) created the first laser weapon. Except not really.

What Exactly is a Laser?

LASER is actually an acronym that stands for Light Amplification by Simulated Emission of Radiation. In principle, it works similarly to Archimedes’ idea. However, some key differences separate lasers from the focused light Archimedes used. 

Like Archimedes’ design, laser weapons require some kind of lens, crystal, or gas through which the light can pass. Those materials interact with the electrons in a current, or another laser, and become “excited.” When that happens, electrons move from a low-energy valence band to a higher energy one.

Nothing can stay all that excited forever, though, and as the electrons calm themselves back to their original valence bands, they emit photons (light energy). 

A really cool thing sets these photons apart from even the ultra-focused ones Archimedes tried to use.  Because they’re excited by a specific electrical current (or another laser), the lasers emit all of their photons at the exact same frequency (or wavelength) instead of scattering those photons around at random frequencies. (This is what happens with “normal” light). Similar to the process of focusing the sun’s rays onto a fixed point, bringing all of the photon frequencies in harmony allows for a uniformly focused and incredibly powerful beam. It also makes the light directional. And directional light comes in handy if you’re a sci-writer looking for a nifty energy weapon. 

But Are Lasers Deadly?

Well, I have one that I paid $1.99 for at the hardware store—after all, you can’t put a price on protection. One day, though, I accidentally shined it on my foot. My heart skipped a beat and all of my fondest memories of that foot flashed before my mind’s eye. Then, a millisecond later, I realized that the little red beam hadn’t severed my foot, nor even made the leather on my boot hot. You can imagine both my relief and disappointment. On the one hand, I still had a fully functional foot. On the other, I had paid $1.99 for a useless self-defense tool.

All kidding aside, what would it take to make a deadly?

Turns out… Surprisingly Little.

First—Yeah, that video is almost 4 years old, which means this diabolical genius has had this thing for a while. As the article in the headline points out, though, it’s not even illegal for inventer Drake Anthony to own it. 

Drake, like a true college student, decided to stay up for two days straight to make his wacky idea a terrifying reality. His laser “shotgun” is referred to as such because it uses eight 5-watt lasers and a lens (like a shotgun choke) to focus the multiple beams into a single deadly ray. That means deadly lasers are not only real, but they’re also terrifyingly easy to make, and they’re not even illegal. Don’t. Just don’t. Mmmkay?

What About the Air Force?

The U.S. Air Force, under which the newly minted U.S. Space Force operates, controls nearly 70% of the objects orbiting Earth at the moment. That’s going to change quickly. Between private companies sending up commercial communications satellite and other governments rapidly advancing in the modern space race, the need to protect our orbiting assets is real. 

Well, never fear. Even before the Commander in Chief decided to re-brand the U.S. Air Force Space Command as the U.S. Space Force, Those brave men and women assigned to that MAJCOM (Major Command) worked diligently on how to best protect our interests in space. 

In fact, in 2005, The Air Force announced on its website that they’ve been developing very powerful carbon-dioxide laser weapons that are capable of cutting through nearly anything. 

With the type of power levels the Air Force is using, they can cut through (or, maybe in the future, blast through) metal and other superhard materials. These types of lasers are extremely practical for earth-bound work. In fact, they’re not too dissimilar from laser engravers. 

Here’s another video that explains how carbon dioxide lasers work:

We Know Lasers Work on Earth, but What About Space?

One of the biggest issues that real astronomers often have with space movies is the idea of noisy explosions in space. This is, of course, because sound waves require a medium through which to propagate. Space is devoid of any such medium, so there’s no sound in space. But what about fire and explosions?

Well yes. Of course there are explosions in space. That’s because there’s gas all over space. A lot of that gas likes to burn when it reacts with oxygen or other elements. This is how we get stars and nebulae and supernovas. But all of those things require gas.

So here’s the question? Would a laser weapon be useful against, say, a spy satellite?

Well, it would depend on the type of laser you used and what you were hoping to accomplish. If, for example, you wanted to blow the satellite out of orbit, you’d probably need a very powerful carbon dioxide or another such heat laser. And then you’d have to hope that there was some kind of flammable gas onboard the satellite. That is, of course, relatively unlikely, though, as most spy satellites aren’t crewed and wouldn’t need oxygen. 

A better way to use a laser against satellites would be to target heat-sensitive components and disable the satellite.

Spaceships, on the other hand, would be extremely vulnerable to heat-laser attack.

Still, the Air Force Wants Space Lasers, and They’ll Have Them.

One of the other space-based lasers in development at the pentagon is the hydrogen fluoride laser. With a super-high energy wavelength of between 2.7 and 2.9 microns, the laser wouldn’t work here on earth. The atmosphere would diffuse too many photons. In space, however, such a weapon could be provided with megawatt power and become extremely devastating. And that’s just one of three realistic lasers the Air Force is working on. Each is a chemical laser, which requires the mixing of chemicals inside of a weapons system to create a powerful laser beam. 

So What’s the Most Realistic Sci-Fi Arsenal?

Well, to be honest, when I first started researching this article, I had my mind set on a couple of storylines that used conventional weapons instead of laser weapons. Now, though, I’m not so sure. Let’s take a look at a few and see how they compare:

Star Trek

Enterprise fires laser weapons

Enterprise fires photon torpedoes.

  • Photon torpedoes.
    • Hmmm. I mean, the name doesn’t fit, but lasers are photons, so maybe in a couple of hundred years, we’ll see something like this. 
  • Hand-held phasers.
    • Well, we already saw the 40W Laser Shotgun, so a smaller side-arm version isn’t out of the realm of possibility. I doubt very seriously it’d have a “stun” setting, though. Sorry, Cpt. Picard.

Star Wars

  • LIghtsabers.
    • Nope. Not yet. Not until you can figure out a way to stop the beam from traveling off into infinity. 
  • Ion cannons.
    • According to Wookieepedia, these defense weapons weren’t actually lasers but rather worked more like focused EMP cannons.
  • Blasters. 
    • Yes, as stated above, Han could have had a blaster. And he definitely would have shot first. 
  • Death Star/Starkiller Base Tech.
    • Here’s an interesting one. Could we destroy a planet with an ultra-powerful laser? Well, not at the moment. On the other hand, according to LiveScience:
      • “Large directed-energy weapons aboard vehicles looks inevitable”
    • If that really is the case, we may see something more along the lines of the Final Order fleet from Rise of Skywalker than a Death Star.

Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers

This is the one I originally thought would be the most plausible. All of the soldiers in this movie fire conventional metal projectiles and the most powerful energy weapons they have are tactical nukes. If you’d have asked me before I started researching, I’d have said that’s still the most likely scenario for space combat – even aboard ships. However, now I’m thinking there may be a new contender to consider…

 

Firefly/Serenity:

In Joss Whedon’s universe, many of the ships are outfitted with creative energy weapons that don’t quite fit the bill for a laser. Things like EMP cannons, missiles, and warheads are much more common. On the other hand, Alliance ships and some other high-end vessels can afford the energy requirements of lasers. 

When it comes to personal sidearms in the Firefly/Serenity universe, though Malcolm Reynolds and nearly everyone else still prefers slug-throwers.

For this reason, I’m saying Firefly/Serenity are closest to what we may see in my lifetime, though I’m not ruling out photon torpedoes, ion cannons, or handheld laser shotguns!

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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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