This week NASA launched a new mission of exploration to Mars, complete with the mobile Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity. What makes this particular remote-controlled space robot special is that it’s the first interplanetary explorer to be equipped with a laser powered by an atomic battery!
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) the laser is not for blasting Martians, but instead it’s designed to vaporize a very tiny amount of rock so that its composition can be analyzed by a spectrometer. It’s a novel, respectable use for a laser, a device that since its inception has inspired uses that mainly expose humanity’s natural destructive tendencies. Maybe it’s not to late to apply the lasers of fiction for the benefit of science, lets explore some of the best examples and see if we can find better uses for them.
Cyclops' Optic Blast
Source: Mutant Power (X-Men)
Destructive Power: Geologic Scale
Scientific Utility: Mineral Science
One of the longest serving X-Men, Scott Summers (AKA Cyclops) possesses the power to naturally generate beams of energy from his eyes in any direction he looks (Well, technically his eyes are interdimensional portals that draw out a concussive force, but "lasers from his eyes" is certainly easier to discuss). Outside of rare occasions, he is unable to keep them from constantly emitting from his head without the use of a special lens that negates their energy, in particular a red visor that allows him precise control of his power and gives him the one-eyed look of his mythological namesake. Notably, these beams project a concussive force, and do not transmit destructive energy as in the typical manner of a laser. If harnessed for scientific use, Cyclops' Optic Blast can be used to tunnel for core samples or to blow away sides of mountains for better examination of subsurface strata.
Hammer of Dawn
Source: Satellite Weapons Array (Gears of War Franchise)
Destructive Power: Theater-Wide Weapon of Mass Destruction with Tactical Capability
Scientific Utility: Asteroid Defense
A veritable Doomsday Weapon, Hammer of Dawn satellites can be used individually to vaporize targets as small as man-sized, provided the right equipment and weather conditions, or if used in harmony and with maximum indiscretion, lay waste to large areas of a planet's surface. Each satellite bears a single high energy beam weapon that with only a short lead time, fires down from orbit for an extended period of time. Designed purely for military use, the Hammer of Dawn could be turned skywards and used to provide a planet with a comprehensive defense against the threat of extinction-level impact events.
Source: Martian Tripod (War of the Worlds)
Destructive Power: Tactical Disintegration of Biologic Matter
Scientific Utility: Medical Sterilization
A terrifying weapon to the grossly out-matched people of the late 19th Century England, the Heat-Ray was a directed energy weapon equipped to every one of the invading Martian Tripod war machines. The Heat-Ray was notable for two reasons, first for the way it almost instantly vaporized any plant or animal matter that was caught in its way, and because it was completely invisible to the naked eye. Outside of a flash of light from its emitter and a targeting spotlight used in darkened conditions, the Heat-Ray disconcertingly set objects and people ablaze with no warning. Ideally, a Heat-Ray would come in handy at its very lowest setting, to quickly and effectively sterilize medical equipment before surgeries.
Death Star Superlaser
Source: Compound Exotic Matter Array (Star Wars)
Destructive Power: Planetary
Scientific Utility: Geophysics
As insignificant as it may be when compared to the power of The Force, the Death Star Superlaser is nevertheless a potent weapon of galactic oppression. When properly protected against assault by rebel snub-fighters, the Death Star can project the Galactic Empire's will by its mere presence and the attendant memory of the fate of Alderaan. Comprised of sixty-four individual beams which are then focused into eight larger beams before being combined into a single focused ray, it can be used to destroy whole planets or targets as “small” as capital ships. Harnessed for 'good', the Death Star Superlaser can be used to quickly discover what is at the heart of (hopefully barren) worlds for the purpose of research with the side benefit of unearthing minerals.
Iron Man's Repulsors
Source: Focused Particle Beam Emitter (Iron Man)
Destructive Power: Localized Anti-Material
Scientific Utility: Space Exploration
Using the nigh-unlimited power of his chest-mounted miniaturized ARC Reactor, Tony Stark's Iron Man armor is able to fly thanks to the four particle beams (repulsors) arrayed around his armor. Further experimentation with the technology revealed their destructive capabilities, at short range their anti-gravitational effect is strong enough to incapacitate people and destroy materials. Such an overall tiny and effective propulsion device could be harnessed to replace expensive and dangerous chemical rockets to propel people and objects, like the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, into orbit and between solar bodies.Spartan Laser
Source: Shoulder-Fired Directed Energy Weapon (Halo Franchise)
Destructive Power: Ranged Anti-Material
Scientific Utility: Specimen Retrieval
A potent ally to have when facing some of the larger mechanical and biological forces of the alien Covenant is the Spartan Laser. After a short charging sequence it fires a continuous beam of destructive energy that steady handed soldiers can use to defend themselves until it runs out of power. Such power could be useful to fell large game for research purposes.Binary Fusion Generator
Source: Justice League Orbital Watchtower II (Justice League Unlimited)
Destructive Power: Strategic Deterrent
Scientific Utility: Theater-wide Sterilization
Built as a weapon of last resort by an extraordinary wealthy individual with a strong sense of justice and a compulsion for over-preparation (Hint: It’s not The Flash) the Binary Fusion Generator drains all of the Watchtower's power into a single high energy blast. While potentially useful in Crisis level situations, the (ahem) BFG is by its nature an aggressive weapon and its use is often misconstrued as an act of villainy. The most benevolent conceivable scientific use for such a weapon aimed at the Earth would be to burn out regions infected with a virulent plague such as the Ebola virus, but even that would be pretty universally viewed as overkill.Wave Motion Gun
Source: Redirected Tachyon Propulsion Output (Space Battleship Yamato)
Destructive Power: Tactical Anti-Material
Scientific Utility: Planetary Orbit Waste Management
The gold standard for Japanese animated space-based superweapons, the Yamato’s Wave Motion Gun has been vaporizing fleets of spacecraft since 1974. By converting the energy of the ship’s propulsion energies, the Yamato can fire a single blast directly forward with enough force to destroy not only whatever is in its path, but even objects that are only in the general area of the beam when it passes by. It is this factor that would make the Wave Motion Gun perfect for an important but often overlooked aspect of scientific research, cleaning up. Currently, NASA and the United States Air Force are tracking over 21,000 objects in low Earth orbit that qualify as space-junk, a few quick blasts from the Wave Motion Gun will do a lot to keep the skies clear for future research and exploration.