Rayguns and Lasers
The future is in... the past?
When you hear the genre-labeling catchphrase "Science Fiction," what comes to mind? Spaceships, aliens, odd, crystalline planets, artificial moons, (like Star Wars' Death Star for example,) and of course, the weaponry. Since H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, originally published in 1898, early science fiction was not complete without some kind of raygun or another, (heck, even Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers had their own versions!) But then, handheld weapons that shoot rays of light, especially such things as "lasers," are just a dream right? Oh sure, they say "laser eye surgery," but they aren't actually using light beams, right? Lasers are just an "old standard," if you will, a tried and true element of fiction that could never have any real basis in reality... aren't they? Perhaps the most interesting thing (or most frightening - you be the judge!) is that not only are a lot of weapons featured in science fiction possible, most have been built and tested over twenty years ago. Beyond that- lasers (yes, real lasers!) are a major part of the lives of most people; from CD and DVD players to eye surgery and dental work, lasers even find uses in everything from industrial manufacturing and processing to those dinky, harmless little pointers that cats will chase for hours.
Taking up nearly all the space in a heavily modified Boeing 747-400F (yes, the airline transport), the United States' airborne laser (officially the Boeing YAL-1A), is just the beginning; plans are already underway to create more of these, and research into making smaller versions that can be mounted on lighter, more maneuverable aircraft has proved promising. But, that doesn't mean you can expect fighter planes to be shooting lasers at each other anytime soon; the COIL (Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser) mounted in such airborne prototypes as the YAL-1A is designed for the sole purpose of taking down missiles cheaply and effectively by heating the skin of the missile until it tears itself apart due to the stresses imposed upon it in flight. Theoretically speaking, though, it has been stated that the COIL could even be used against satellites and other, smaller aircraft, but, to the knowledge of this writer, it has never been tried.
Now, granted, the ability to heat up a missile to the point that it destroys itself is not altogether that impressive, but the COIL has other potentially useful (and ultimately more exciting) applications outside of combat use as well. Take for example, TRW incorporated's test in 1996; producing a beam actually capable of rapidly cutting through stainless steel and hastelloy (a "superalloy" produced by Haynes International Incorporated), TRW proved that the COIL could be used for all manner of industrial applications, including mining and quick, cheap processing of materials.
But, of course, the COIL is not the end all and be all of using light as a cutting or destructive tool; the COIL is simply another variation on that same theme. While the COIL is what is referred to as a "chemical laser," (lasers powered by a chemical reaction, such as that produced by the combination of a gas with a mixture of something like nitrogen in ethylene triflouride) other lasers have been generated using a variety of different methods, some more powerful than others. Using everything from gases (and in this case, removing the chemical reaction that makes chemical lasers unique- typically Helium-neon, Carbon Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide, and Argon-Ion are used to produce these sorts of lasers) to organic dyes and precious gemstones impregnated with ions that allow the "beam" to reach the required energy states, lasers can be created relatively easily and cheaply, but like everything else, effectiveness comes always comes with a higher cost in materials!
A lot of promising work has also come out of the electrolaser and microwave laser areas of research; with immediate potential uses in Iraq, weapons that run off these principles could be used to stun targets, disable electronic systems, and even prematurely detonate roadside bombs -all in one rifle-sized package- just for starters. The first prototype for an electrolaser was proved in 1985 (Project Phoenix - Strategic Defense Initiative research program) when it was tested by the US navy for use against missiles and aircraft at long range, while microwave lasers are still being fully investigated. The United States Air Force seems the most interested in the military application of microwaves, (not the appliance, though that does conjure an amusing image: "Should we drop them? They are rather heavy. Maybe they'll explode or... something when they hit the ground."), and is currently working on something they call the "Active Denial System," which uses microwaves to heat the water molecules in the skin, thereby producing a painful burning sensation that (as yet) seems to have no long term side effects and dissipates the instant the individual moves out of range of the ADS. Of course, research into long term side effects is still underway, urged on by the many humanitarian organizations (such as the Red Cross) that are looking on this technology with a wary eye (which is a good thing, considering the fact that we're talking about projecting radiation here.) With a little luck, non-lethal defensive measures like the ADS will prove to be as safe and effective as scientists (and willing test subjects!) claim they are.
But why stop with lasers? Science fiction is full of other interesting variations on the "raygun," expanding the idea out into all sorts of directed-energy weapons, including such mainstays as Plasma and Particle Beam weapons, but are they as feasible as lasers? Amazingly enough, for Plasma, the answer is a firm yes; already, the plasma torch (also, amusingly enough, referred to as the plasma gun) is used in industrial applications, and work on the MARAUDER, (Magnetically Accelerated Ring to Achieve Ultra-high Directed Energy and Radiation) is already well underway for potential antiaircraft use and a host of other combat applications as well. The field is, as yet, relatively untapped, but the potential is grand- the essence of harnessing plasma for any application is essentially that of harnessing lightning itself, for lightning is a naturally occurring form of plasma, and the ability to heat any given point we choose to upwards of 30,000 degrees centigrade (as lightning often does) could prove incredibly useful in a whole host of industries, including, of course, those responsible for producing weaponry. Not that artificial lightning cannot be generated- it's just not cheap, efficient, and wholly practical yet.
Unlike the aforementioned devices utilizing plasma, work on Particle Beam weaponry has proved exceedingly difficult; though still theoretically possible, by some stretch of the mind, there are no working models or experimental prototypes known of as yet (but look hard enough, and you're sure to turn up a seedy bit of unsubstantiated information claiming that the USSR was working on some very promising designs for use in espionage or planned incursions into other nations, most notably the United States.)
While Flash Gordon's raygun or Han Solo's blaster may still be a long ways off (and too theatrically appealing for reality- real lasers are generally invisible to the naked eye and travel at the speed of light) the concept of directed energy is not a new one. Industrial lasers, plasma torches, microwave arrays- all these and more comprise the still infant-like field of practical energy weapons, but already that infant is standing on its own two feet, ready to run, ready to become the newest thing in nonlethal force. So while the wars and police actions of the future may be fought by automated, artificially intelligent weaponry as so many scientists and members of the military believe, the rising trend of nonlethal methods and weaponry will ultimately rule the day in confrontations between the men and women in the field; humane wars may not seem altogether feasible, but with the use of these technologies, death and even injuries may become a thing reserved for only the bloodiest, most barbaric and inhuman altercations between the soldiers of any nation, something frowned upon and, thankfully, avoided at all cost.