Where's My Ray Gun?
CREDIT: Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden, via Flickr
They first appeared more than a century ago, when H.G. Wells told of Martians and their fighting machines come to earth carrying heat-rays to decimate the armies in their paths. In Star Wars, they were blasters; on Star Trek, they were phasers; in other stories, they’re called laser guns.
They are directed energy weapons, and despite a hundred years of fictional interest, military scientists have not produced a working, real-life version.
"A Taser is about as close as you’re going to get," said John Pike, Director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military information website.
The technology for directed energy weapons has been used in fiction since the days when x-rays were discovered, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the modern laser, which stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, was invented. Lasers, however, need a power source to amplify the electromagnetic radiation until it gets to the desired level of energy where the laser beam would become a powerful weapon.
This is where hand-held devices are out of the picture. No matter what sort of laser is used, there is no way to get the energy source and laser into a something small enough for a storm trooper to carry around and inflict real damage. Even if engineers could shrink the energy source, there is so much waste heat generated from firing the laser that people -- or storm troopers -- would not be able to hold it in their hands.
Small laser weapons may never be a reality, but Pike said there are problems for larger applications as well. As the laser travels through the air, the energy gets dispersed as it has to cuts through dust, salt or other particulate in the atmosphere. But that hasn't stopped the U.S. Department of Defense from trying.
The Navy recently tested a solid-state laser mounted on a ship and tested it by blowing up a small motorboat. The Navy did not specify the distance of the strike, but Pike questions whether the laser would be able to travel far enough through the salty air to be significantly better than conventional guns.
One area where a modern ray gun might have some applications is from the air, said Pike. In 2010, the Navy successfully shot down robotic drones using an airborne chemical laser weapon mounted on a modified 747. Considering some of the most famous lasers in sci-fi came mounted on vehicles (think Wells' Martians and the Death Star), maybe reality is finally catching up.
This story is part of our series "Where's My Future?" that looks at areas of technology that have failed to catch up with the predictions of science fiction. The rest of the series can be found here.