One of the quintessential sci-fi inventions that exists in both the Star Trek and Star Wars canons is the laser weapon (okay, Star Trek calls it a “phaser,” but same diff for science purposes). Now, in real life, even as recently as three years ago, we were still lamenting the lack of availability of laser weapons that would allow us to poke holes in or evaporate one another. Well, the good(?) news is that the future is now!
Say hello to my little LaWS:
Yep, as of 2014, the US Navy has had a fully operational Laser Weapon System (LaWS) in active service. In what sounds like a straight-out-of-sci-fi endeavor, LaWS is a collaborative effort among a cornucopia of military and scientific bodies such as the ONR, NAVSEA, NRL, NSWC Dahlgren Division, and of course, commercial industry partners led by the not-at-all-evil-and-clandestine-sounding corporation Kratos Defense & Security. LaWS has already been demonstrated to detonate small rocket warheads mounted aboard oncoming boats, shoot a Scan Eagle UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) out of the sky, and destroy lots of other moving targets.
LaWS is a directed-energy weapon that can target both air and surface targets with either lethal or nonlethal force, depending on the power setting (like a phaser, one might say!). However, much to the chagrin of Industrial Light & Magic, the beam emitted by LaWS is invisible to the naked eye. All an observer would see is the target bursting into flames moments after the laser is activated.
As you might expect, DARPA is already toying with both airborne and ground-based LaWS variations.
I know, I know, so I can hear you thinking: Okay, great, so we’ve got “lasers,” but what about a Starkiller Base? That’s totally cray-fi, right? Wellllllll… while much has been written about the feasibility of the Starkiller Base featured in The Force Awakens, I don’t really know if it’s worthwhile waxing poetic about whether it’s feasible to suck the hydrogen fuel of stars to power such a big gun. Instead, let’s look at what the Starkiller accomplishes rather than how it accomplishes it. In other words, could we blow up another planet?
Well, while we’ll likely never have a Death Star, we are very close to having a DE-STAR, which stands for Directed Energy System for Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation. If you thought LaWS sounded like sci-fi, wait ‘til you get a load of this: the DE-STAR is an experimental system being developed by the University of California, Santa Barbara to deflect asteroids, comets, and other near-Earth objects using a massive array of laser beams. This laser array would generate a set of highly-focused energy beams that could raise the temperature of a spot on the target’s surface to around 4940 degrees (roughly half the temperature of the sun), allowing direct vaporization and ejection of surface material altering the asteroid’s or comet’s orbit. Get this: ideal DE-STAR systems should be able to simultaneously engage multiple extra planetary targets. In other words, who needs a Starkiller when you’ve got a DE-STAR?
Even if you’re not in the mood to play asteroids IRL, another use case of DE-STAR technology is photon propulsion, whereby thrust from said photons emitted from the DE-STAR laser array could be used to propel a spacecraft. This would allow for the possibility of flight speeds approaching the speed of light, which as we all know is a prerequisite for future interstellar missions.
So there you have it, the power to blow up the universe or explore it is within our grasp!
Going forward, I’ll be writing for Geek & Sundry about technologies that have up until very recently only existed in the realm of science fiction, but are now starting to enter our reality. Topics like artificial intelligence, teleportation, interstellar travel, and more.
What’s on your sci-fi wish list? Put it in a comment, and I’ll research it. Your dream tech may be closer to reality than you imagine!
Image Source: Qicheng Zhang/UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group