The Star Trek phaser could look like a small car
key on a fob, a handgun, a rifle, or a huge bank
mounted on the ship. It could be set for stun or
kill, but this is the only time I saw it set for
make their head explode.
Gene Roddenberry gave Kirk and his cohorts palm-held phasers as well as hand-held laser guns early in the first season. But as time went on, the laser was phased out as a weapon – get it? Phased out. Roddenberry worried that the more people learned about the early lasers of the 1960’s, they would lose faith in his laser weapons.
Lasers of the mid-1960’s weren’t very strong. There were more things they couldn’t do than things they could; laser pointers for your public seminar were the height of technology and weighed a ton. So Roddenberry dropped the laser and focused on the phaser.
The word phaser is a portmanteau of the word photon and the acronym maser. What’s a maser? It’s the same thing as a laser except that instead is using visible light, it generates microwaves. In the acronym, they just switch an “M” in for the “L” but the rest is the same – Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.
Masers were invented in the 1950’s, and microwaves were more mysterious than light rays, so a microwave-based weapon was believable. In truth though, the “photon maser = phaser” was really just another name for a laser. Before the acronym “laser” took hold, the device using visible light was called an “optical maser.”
James T. Kirk’s phaser was scalable; it could stun, kill, or mounted on the ship it could destroy continents. It did its job by emitting a stream of subatomic particles called “rapid nadions” whatever those are. As such, Star Trek referred to phasers as directed energy weapons. These types of weapons are fundamentally different than anything the real world has seen.
A directed energy weapon emits a highly focused beam of energy, delivered directly as energy and at the speed of light (or nearly so). The beam can be made of atomic or subatomic particles, or of energy waves, but they have to be of negligible mass. Until not too long ago, these were theoretical weapons, but we’ve made significant progress – if you want to call it progress. Here are some coming directed energy weapons:
Particle beams –
Particle beam weapons are like atomic sand blasters. They use extremely small particles (on the order of electrons, protons, or neutrons) that are accelerated to nearly the speed of light. We already have machines that can do that. Basically, an old-fashioned television cathode ray tube is a particle accelerator, we’ve just learned how to make them bigger, more powerful and use things other than electrons.
But accelerate subatomic particles to near the speed of light, and they become destructive. Neutral particles are the easiest to work with, since they don’t repel each other and spread the beam out (diverge). The US had a neutral particle beam based in space from 1998 to 2006 for testing. It was recovered in 2006 and is now in the Smithsonian.
Lately we have been able to expand from neutrons to accelerating protons. A 2011 study showed that lasers can be used to focus and accelerate protons for a new kind of particle beam. Many applications are possible for this type of beam, from producing new states of matter, to medical uses, and space research. But weapons might be possible as well; however, problems would have to be overcome.
High energy masers (HEM) –
The original phaser was a photon maser, but our masers are usually very low energy. Masers are used as timers in atomic clocks and for space research, but they have a disadvantage in that they must be cooled extensively. Does your microwave oven have a refrigerant? No, that’s because it isn’t a maser, it’s just a microwave emitter.
However, starting in 2012, a room temperature/solid state maser was demonstrated, and a few countries have moved forward in developing maser weapons even if they are only non-lethal weapons. Since microwaves are lower energy than light waves, they don’t penetrate the body very far. But boy, they can heat your skin up and hurt like heck. As such, they are used for crowd control, rather than human destruction. In other words, our current phasers can’t be set to stun or kill, just sunburn.
High energy lasers (HEL) –
Plane based high energy lasers were developed in the 1970’s by the US Air Force. By the mid 1980’s, these lasers had been abandoned as weapons but remained as targeting mechanisms. You can use a low energy laser to sight and distance a target, and even have other weapons follow a laser path to a target.
In the late 2000’s, deformable mirrors, or adaptive mirrors, were developed that could change shape to accommodate the deformation induced by high energy lasers. First they were liquid mirrors, but now there are solid versions. Using these mirrors, the US Navy shot down a drone with a high energy laser in 2011 and destroyed a small ship with a ship-based laser in 2013. This naval experiment was particularly useful in learning how to power the massive laser while still powering the ship.
The US Air Force has an air borne laser program (ABL) which uses three different types of lasers on the same instrument; one for firing, one for targeting, and two for illumination. The ABL has been tested for years, and now the Air Force wants it implemented on the upcoming AC-130J gunships in 2017.
Usually lasers “lase” (use as a substrate) a solid or gas material in order to produce the radiation. Unfortunately, these substrates are expensive, finite, and hard to produce. But what if that wasn’t necessary? There are now free electron lasers (FEL). These feature electrons, just like in your TV tube, only they are sped up with supermagnets. Electrons of sufficient energy and speed will then produce photons of laser light all on their own.
Light-induced plasma channel weapon (LIPC) -
One final potential directed energy weapon is worth discussing. The LIPC is basically a lightning bolt fired down a laser beam. The laser turns the air into a plasma (all air molecules are stripped of their electrons), and this provides a tract of least resistance for high energy electrons to be directed.
Sound like science fiction? Well, the US Army fired one successfully in 2012. This was not a very focused test, but several advancements have been made since then. In 2013, scientists figured how to fire a toroid plasma beam in free air instead of a vacuum. This might someday allow for a plasma tunnel to direct a lightning bolt without the need of a high energy laser.
Another 2013 study showed that lasers can be used to accelerate electrons on their own and can focus them with the magnetic waves it produces. This might make a LIPC possible without the need for a plasma tunnel. The main reason for this research right now is energy production. The scientists want to develop fusion energy for consumer use, but how many times have we seen commercial products weaponized or weapon technology that becomes commercialized.
Next week - a tractor beam (from “attractor”) is a classic science fiction tool, and Star Trek made use of them as well. Science fact is now just now starting to catch up to science fiction – is this topic pulling you in?
Contributed by Mark E. Lasbury, MS, MSEd, PhD