Science fiction has a plethora of ideas about what happened in the past and what to expect from the future. Unfortunately, not all of those ideas are exactly plausible in reality. In Suspension of Disbelief, we’ll take a look at the best ideas from sci-fi movies, books, comics and videogames to see where (and if) they intersect with the real world.
Next to spaceships, the laser gun, ray gun, heat ray, blaster, phaser, or whatever else you may call it, is possibly the most ubiquitous device in all of science fiction. Nothing lets an audience know that a story takes place in a technologically advanced time better than the obsolescence of metal bullets. Even before lasers were ever actually invented, science-fiction authors had already dreamt up guns and weapons that could melt objects, burn holes through people, and disintegrate enemies.
Real-life laser guns are, naturally, a little more complex than that. Laser weapons fit into the more broad category of directed-energy weapons, which use any type of emitted energy to damage a target. Microwaves, lasers, particle beams, and sound would all fall under this category. Even with these varied options, most people tend to just be waiting for someone to invent something like the laser technology of Star Trek’s phasers or Star Wars’s blasters: a handheld device that emits a quick laser bolt that can take out most any obstacle or person in one hit.
Building a slick device that’s both small and powerful isn’t within the realm of our technology yet, but humanity has certainly taken steps to blow things up using concentrated energy. Click through the gallery to see seven real-life examples of laser guns.
Hailing from upstate New York, Cameron Wade is a freelance writer interested in movies, videogames, comic books and more. You can find his work at protogeektheblog.wordpress.com.
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Soviet laser pistols
Soviet Union spacecraft have come equipped with firearms for decades, in the event that cosmonauts' return capsules land in remote, dangerous areas and they need to defend themselves from bears or other wildlife. In the 1980s, cosmonauts were also equipped with another gun: a "laser" pistol that used high-powered flashbulbs as ammunition. The pistols were designed to blind American satellites and spacecrafts if they were looking at something the Soviets didn't want them to. When fired, the guns could reportedly blind a person that was 65 feet away and apparently the bulbs burned hot enough to burn a hole through a space helmet visor at point blank range. Though there are no reported incidents of them ever being used, the Soviet laser pistols are a fascinating example of the kind of plans and technologies both sides of the Space Race were constantly engineering in order to one-up their opponents.
Image via PolitRussia/YouTube
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The MIRACL laser
President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative was an extremely ambitious plan to combine ground and orbital defense platforms in order to protect the country from a possible nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. The plan was widely derided at the time, in particular for the feasibility of maintaining orbiting defense stations, and it was mockingly dubbed "Star Wars" by the press and public. Created in 1980 for the SDI, the Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser had an energy output in the megawatts (equivalent to some aircraft carriers) and could be fired for up to 70 seconds, making it the most powerful continuous wave laser in the US. In testing, it successfully destroyed a test rocket, though the rocket was built with a pressurized shell to make it more susceptible to the MIRACL's beam. The Strategic Defense Initiative was dissolved in 1993, but the US military continued to test the MIRACL laser. In 1997, the Air Force wanted to test how well satellites could withstand lasers, and so MIRACL was used to fire on a defunct satellite from 268 miles away. It fired at 50 percent capacity for 10 seconds, but failed to damage the satellite. Instead, MIRACL itself broke. Though it hasn't become the orbiting laser gun that it was originally envisioned as, MIRACL remains the most powerful laser in the United States's arsenal.
Images via White Sands Missile Range, U.S. Army
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The BEAR project
The Beam Experiments Aboard Rocket project was an aspect of the Strategic Defense Initiative that was concerned with how a directed-energy weapon would function in space. In 1989, the project launched a neutral particle beam accelerator just past the boundary of space to test how the beam itself would propagate in outer space and what effect it would have on spacecraft parts it was fired at. The accelerator launched neutrally charged particles at a high velocity capable of intensely heating up and melting its target. The goal for the beam was that it could be used to prematurely detonate a nuclear device before it could reach its target. The beam proved capable of punching a hole through its test target and its aim was unaffected by Earth's magnetic fields, but the BEAR project was scrapped when the SDI dissolved just a few years later.
Image via Defense Technical Information Center
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Like the Soviet laser pistols of the 1980s, the US military has tried developing its own handheld blinding laser gun. In 2005, the Air Force unveiled the Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response weapon, or PHaSR. Built with both the military and police in mind, the PHaSR would be a device wielded by a single person that could project a low-level laser capable of blinding its target, similar to the effect of when a flashlight is shined into your eye up close. The PHaSR's goals was operate at much farther distances so that soldiers and police could keep potentially dangerous people from continuing towards them. One problem was that for the laser to reach such distances, it had to be powerful, but once it was too powerful it would be capable of permanently blinding people who were too close to it, a violation of the Geneva Convention. The development team worked on a rangefinder for the PHaSR's second version that could be used to adjust the intensity of the laser accordingly based on a target's distance. After spending $900,000 on two prototypes, the project was canceled. Data from the weapon has been used on similar infrared laser devices that would cause a mild heating or burning of the skin in order to deter targets. Concerns about the effects and ethicality of laser weapons has kept the PHaSR and its successors from being actively tested on human subjects.
Image via US Air Force
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The Zeus laser
Following in the footsteps of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Zeus system uses a laser mounted on the roof of a Humvee to detonate mines and IEDs at safe distances. The laser outputs at just 0.05 kilowatts and is effective up to 200 meters. Operated from within the Humvee, Zeus overheats explosives, causing them to go off, regardless of how they're designed to be detonated. It usually takes about 30 seconds of continuous firing to detonate a mine. In 2003, Zeus was deployed to Afghanistan where it destroyed 211 explosives in its first 6 months, including one 100-minute session that disposed of 51 mines. It later expanded to the Iraq theater in 2008 and has destroyed over 1,600 devices since its inception. Zeus is the first high-power laser to be used in an active battlefield and is on its way to becoming a staple of American military operations.
Image via US Army
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The Advanced Tactical Laser and the Airborne Laser Testbed
Private companies have begun to build their own laser weapons as well. In 2009, Boeing successfully tested the Advanced Tactical Laser, a laser system attached to the underside of a C-130H aircraft. The ATL tracked, fired on, and destroyed a stationary vehicle as the aircraft flew overhead. The ATL outputs at 100 kilowatts of energy and weighs a total of 12,000 pounds. Boeing claimed the weapon was so precise that it could destroy an entire vehicle or individually disable its tires as it flew by. Despite the reported success of the test, the ATL was canceled shortly afterwards. In 2010, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin tested a similar weapon called the Airborne Laser Testbed. This system was mounted on the nose of the plane, instead of the underside, and was designed to destroy ballistic missiles while en route to their targets. The ALT was also successful, becoming the first directed-energy weapon to intercept a ballistic missile from an aircraft, but it too was canceled, mainly due to its operating cost of $100 million per year.
Images via Boeing/Wired, US Missile Defense Agency
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Laser Weapon System
In 2014, the USS Ponce was equipped with the creatively titled Laser Weapon System as it set out for a tour in the Persian Gulf. The goal was to test how the laser would fare in the harsh heat and humidity of the Middle East and how well its sensors and tracking systems could cope with being on the ever-changing ocean waves. Developed over seven years for $40 million, LaWS has a maximum output of 30 kilowatts, about 1/33,000 of the energy used by MIRACL. It's comprised of six commercial welding lasers, which are focused through the device onto a single spot. It can operate at varying degrees of intensity, from just a simple warning light for boats that are somewhere they shouldn't be, or, at maximum power, lighting a drone or small boat on fire. After a few months in operation, LaWS was deemed a success and will remain on the USS Ponce throughout 2017.
Image via US Navy