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As J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise boldly goes into cinemas, it’s time for us to go looking for real-life phasers. While warp drive and transporters clearly belong to the far future, the American military has been working hard to turn sci-fi’s favorite ray gun into a reality.
Other nonlethal weapons taking their cue from Star Trek include the chunky laser rifle known as “Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response,” or PHaSR. This incorporates two different lasers: one is a distracting “dazzler,” the other an infra-red device which heats up the skin causing a “repel effect.” (More pain, in other words.) It’s an interesting idea, although laser dazzlers are not new, and the repel effect only works on exposed skin. It might be useful for stopping someone from advancing, or forcing them to drop a knife, but has obvious limitations. At any rate, it’s the one you’re most likely to face, as the NIJ are developing the technology for police forces.
An altogether more ambitious weapon is a device for projecting ball lightning at high speed, which goes by the name “Phased Hyper-Acceleration for Shock, EMP, and Radiation.” (Yup, PHASER. )
Inventor Paul Koloc says that the device “can be used for a range of purposes from stunning personnel to destroying the functionality of electronically operated devices, smaller rockets and vehicles… this dial-able PHASER weapon can be set on ‘Stun’ or dialed down, selecting a non-lethal level for persons needed for later interrogation.”
However, a key aspect of the technology — generating a stable ball lightning that can then be compressed and fired — is still under development and funding is being sought.
Almost any non-lethal directed energy weapon invites comparisons with the Phaser, but sometimes this isn’t too convincing. The Pentagon’s Active Denial System or “pain beam” currently weights nine tons and has a warm-up time of sixteen hours; plus it only has one setting, “painful heating.”
But in one sense, the Active Denial System really is the closest thing to a Phaser. According to the production notes for the original Star Trek series, the name “phaser” was a contraction of “Photon Maser.” The Maser (a name formed from the acronym Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of radiation) was invented before the laser; lasers were originally known as “optical masers.” Masers were initially more powerful than lasers and the makers of Star Trek at least thought they had more weapons potential. At the heart of the Active Denial System is a Gyrotron – a free electron Maser. So, while it can’t stun or disintegrate, the Active Denial System is at least a maser and it does fire photons making it a Phaser in one sense.
But there are more sophisticated weapons on the horizon. Take the Multimode Directed Energy Armament System (MDEAS) research project. If it works, it really will be phaser-esque — with both lethal and non-lethal settings. MDEAS relies on an ultrashort laser pulse (one measured in million millionth of a seconds) to create an ionized channel through the air. This channel can then be used to conduct a powerful electric shock to the target to stun or kill. The channel can also act as a waveguide for an intense pulse of microwave energy which can burn out electronics — useful for stopping vehicles and defeating roadside bombs. Even better, at least one version of the device will be portable enough for Kirk and company to carry around with them.
The Multimode Directed Energy Armament System is still at the laboratory stage, but by the end of 2011 there should be a rugged prototype which works in a realistic environment.
Then they need to start work on those starships …