Have you ever stopped and really thought about the possibility of finding life in the universe or maybe that extra-terrestrial life finding us! And then, when they find us, what if they aren’t exactly friendly and they want our planet for some super evil plan so they decide to have an all-out war for the planet and we have to hire Will Smith and Sigourney Weaver to figure how to stop them! Yes I have been told I have an over active imagination. Couple that with an extensive sci-fi movie collection and an impressionable worrier and you have a blockbuster…or just grey hairs! Although this does sound crazy, it does lead to me to think about the possibility of having a war in space and what weapons would we actually use. Could normal earth weapons be used in the vacuum of space or would we have to start creating the futuristic guns and lasers of movies and video games? Or have they already been created?

Let’s start with the basics; can a normal, modern gun be fired in space? The short answer is, yes! The basic reaction needed for a bullet to fire is an explosion of gunpowder, which ultimately is fire, which requires oxygen. Now although there is obviously no oxygen in space, modern day bullets now contain their own oxidiser which allows the necessary chemical reaction to occur in a vacuum. So you could defend any future floating space house from an outside alien attacker, or from space pirates but it would come at a cost. Newton’s third law of motion dictates that ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction’. So if you think about it, what’s going to happen when the bullet leaves the gun? The force from the bullet leaving he gun will have an equal and opposite force on the gun…and also you! You would speed away in the opposite direction of the bullet! I am not a military strategist but I don’t think speeding a way is a good move in a space gun battle!
 

A serious space shooter: TP-82 pistol in the Saint-Petersburg Artillery Museum (Image credit: public domain image by One half 3544 via wikipedia)

A serious space shooter: TP-82 pistol in the Saint-Petersburg Artillery Museum (Image credit: public domain image by One half 3544 via wikipedia)

 

This definitely has not been the first time someone has thought about the possibility of guns in space with various portrayals of different people’s ideas of what a space gun in various movies, TV shows, computer games, books etc. Many therefore may assume that guns in space are something that could happen in the distant future but it has already happened! Step up the Russians! Back in 1965 a Voskhod spacecraft of the Voskhod 2 mission landed in a remote area off from the planned landing site and the crew, consisting of 2 cosmonauts, claimed that during their two days lost in the winter Taiga Forest they had faced some seriously tough wild animals…. And the measly Makarov PM pistol they found was lacking. So one of the two crew members, Alexei Leonov thought a new gun had to be added to their emergency survival kit, but not just any gun, he initiated the design of the Chuck Norris of guns, the TP-82 Pistol. The name sounds fairly standard but this was more than just a pistol. The TP-82 was a triple-barrel; single shot break open shotgun and rifle that had a machete attachment for the stock! Enough to make any angry grizzly bear run screaming! They claimed the shotgun was needed for those tougher animals and the machete for various things such as cutting down tough forestry. The gun design wasn’t approved until 1981, but by the following year it made its way into space as part of the Soviet and Russian Soyuz Portable Emergency-Survival Kit and it stayed there until 2006 when it was replace; not because they were having a wild west shoot out in space but because the original ammunition became unusable. They now just take a semi-automatic pistol to space with them without all the added craziness. Now I am sure some people are wondering was there an ulterior motive for bringing up these weapons to space, especially considering that the American astronauts do not bring any weaponry up, but strangely enough the TP-82 fell within the parameters of the Outer Space Treaty! Yes that really is true; there is an Outer Space Treaty.
 


 

The fear of separate countries using satellites as weapons or building a military base on the moon is something that is rife in popular culture but it was and perhaps still is a very real fear. So when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, into space in October 1957 we saw the birth of a new field of law: Space Law! Within this new field of law we saw the introduction of the Outer Space Treaty which prohibits any country from militarising space including using satellites as weapons or creating military bases in space or on any celestial body. Ultimately the exploration of space and use of any celestial objects needs to be peaceful in purpose. Some may think that having an over the top ‘Swiss-army’ gun is breaking this law, but it’s in keeping with the law. The law does not stop the placement of conventional weapons in space, which includes the TP-82, as well as rockets, missiles, sea and land mines and so forth. Essentially anything that does not come under the banner for weapons of mass destruction.
 

Salyut 3/Almaz OPS-2: ,A spy with a false name and a concealed weapon (Image credit: NASA)

Salyut 3/Almaz OPS-2: A spy with a false name and a concealed weapon (Image credit: NASA)


 
So yes it does leave quite a wide gap for space guns to be created but the issue of space militarisation is definitely a grey area as there has definitely been some questionable objects created for military use in space. One that springs to mind is an extremely secretive Soviet endeavour, the Almaz programme. This was a military space station that saw three reconnaissance modules launched in the 1970’s when tensions where still high from the cold war. They were launched under the pretense that they were part of the civilian Salyut programme but it really was a way for the Soviets to test their military capabilities in space. Obviously, like I have learned from every good spy movie, if you want to keep something secret it is important to plan for every eventuality, which would include having to defend the space stations. And they didn’t send them up with water pistols! The Soviets created the aircraft auto cannon Rikhter R-23, a highly secretive and unique weapon that was a modified version of the tail gun of the Russian Tu-22 bomber.

It was a gas-operated revolver canon which helped with its speed as it could fire up to 2,600 rpm, making any Salyut module equipped with this beast of a weapon a satellite that you would not want to sneak up on! The Rikhter 23 remained a secret to the western world until the late 1980’s when it was discovered in a Tu-22 wreckage by the French as only a few Middle Eastern countries including Libya and Iraq knew about its existence. Although the Almaz programme did not have a fruitfully long run (ending in 1978 as the benefits of the spy satellites were outweighed by their maintenance costs!) the Rikhter R-23 did let its shells loose in space! In 1974 the Salyut 3 (AKA Almaz 3)module successfully test fired the revolver cannon whilst it was unmanned. It was on a fixed mounting so this meant the entire station had to move and face the direction of a test satellite that it blew to pieces. Although there is limited information that has been released about the programme and use of the auto cannon, it was believed, that although the test was classed as a success, it did have a problem of causing a serious amount of vibration and noise on the space station so having people on board when it was being fired was definitely not recommended!

So it is clear that for a long time ‘conventional’ guns have the ability to be fired in space and this is not a modern day discovery or invention. So this definitely does turn me into one of those annoying friends that everyone has who has to point the flaws out the SF culture today! A show that really utilises the genre of cowboy astronauts was the cult hit, Joss Whedon’s Firefly! Set 500 years in the future, humanity has found a new star system and created a culture based on the American  Old Western with lots of new and classic guns. The guns are used a lot throughout the series and many have been altered or customised from classic western weapons that Clint Eastwood and John Wayne made famous, though much of the fire fights happen on solid, planetary ground so don’t provoke any questions of plausibility. There are spoilers to follow in the next few lines so for those who have Firefly in their ‘to watch’ list, skip the next paragraph!

In the episode, Our Mrs Reynolds, I will not give much detail of the episode but the simplified premise is that our heroes, the crew of the spaceship Serenity, find themselves in trouble and facing impending doom  in the shape of a giant electrical net that will rip the ship apart, with fatal consequences for the crew. But they concoct a plan to get Jayne, the show’s dimwitted thug, to use his beloved gun ‘Vera’ to shoot at a certain point on the net which will disable it and thus save their lives. According to the show the only problem is that Vera needs oxygen to fire! So they elaborately place Vera inside a pressurised space suit so Jayne can take the shot through the helmet of the suit to save their lives . Obviously the plan works and their lives are saved, but this rings some alarm bells are ringing. As stated at the beginning of the article we have discovered that the gun would not have needed an elaborate method of shooting as it would have been able to fire as it has its own oxidiser!

Now not all the guns in Firefly are modified versions of real life guns of the 21st Century and from history but are in fact guns that have yet to be fully created and have probably been every sci-fi lover’s dream to see come into reality. Primarily I am talking about laser guns! Firefly, like many other shows did have the presence of laser guns or pistols in the show, primarily used by the antagonists, the big, bad central planet occupants, the Alliance.
 

Sadly laser weapons are becoming a reality but hopefully none are in space yet. A Laser Weapon System mounted on the US Ponce in 2014 (Image credit: US Navy)

Sadly laser weapons are becoming a reality but hopefully none are in space yet. A Laser Weapon System mounted on the US Ponce in 2014 (Image credit: US Navy)


 
Laser guns have been something that we have seen in so many movies and I would be partial to using a laser or ray gun in many a game, but how far off are we from having real laser guns today? Now laser guns are something that I am pretty sure every armed force has thought of. The basic concept of lasers or direct energy weapons is tight rays of photons that have been created when atoms have been sufficiently excited in a gas, liquid or solid to create a laser beam! Many space agencies and military organisations have done their best to utilise the resource. They are commonly used in targeting, guiding and communication throughout the military but converting the technology into something that is used as a weapon may be trickier! But it has actually be done with the US Navy revealing its 30-kilowatt laser weapon system in 2014 that is 30 million times more powerful than a laser pointer and they are even working on a more powerful one for the future. So definitely, modern society is trying to bring  SF fans’ dreams come true to see laser weapons, but this does not mean there has not been attempts in the past!
 
Early 1980s concept art Space Laser Satellite Defense System in action. (image credit: USAF)

Early 1980s concept art depicting Space Laser Satellite Defense System in action. Never was nuclear warfare looked so clean and neat. (image credit: USAF)


 
Back in May 1987 the Soviet Union attempted to launch Earth’s first Orbital Battlestation in the form of the Polyus spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and its purpose was not exactly in keeping with the Outer Space Treaty. The treaty prohibits the militarisation of space and the Polyus was to be a prototype of an orbital weapons platform that could destroy any SDI (Strategic Defence Initiative) satellites. The Strategic Defence Initiative was announced in the United States in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan as a missile defence system to protect the USA from ballistic missile or nuclear attacks which including satellite support. In the interest of space laser weaponry, it is the method that the Polyus was to use to destroy these satellites that really grabs attention. They intended to use a megawatt carbon-dioxide laser to destroy the SDI satellites. This laser was originally designed for the Soviet Beriev A-60 airborne laser laboratory , which obviously was a vehicle designed to try and test and create airborne laser technology. Now the true intentions for the Polyus were obviously very secret so they obviously did not want any other countries to realise the presence of the laser on board. A way that its presence could have been detected was every test with the laser would produce essentially a large cloud of hot carbon dioxide  and this would alert any country watching them to what was on board. So they planned to use a zero-torque exhaust system at the same time and so make the test seem like a very innocent scientific experiment. But this quite controversial satellite never reached space, malfunctioning and failing before it could reach orbit on the initial flight of the Energia launch vehicle and we never seen the laser used, which some would see as a blessing in disguise.
 

 
But to end, I personally couldn’t ignore a weapon that has reared its barrel within many a game and popular culture which takes its roots from history. The Sun Gun! It was believed that the Nazis looked into creating an orbital weapon that would have used used the light from the Sun to create intensified beams from the sun to use against their enemies, much like using a magnifying glass on a sunny day to torture ants. Now nothing appears to have ever been created that does this but popular culture today has taken inspiration from it including quite a massive online computer game, Call of Duty. In the most recent instalment of the franchise, COD: Advanced Warfare you can use various futuristic weapons, some of which we have already discussed. But one quite impressive map specific care package that you can receive in the game is the Solar Reflection Tower. With this a player can call forth a huge solar beam from a satellite to nuke their foes, although you would have to hope they were extremely slow runners as the beam isn’t exactly fast…but fun none the less! So obviously space weaponry is on many people’s minds!

The types and use of guns in space is a huge topic that could be dissected so much further in both the real world and the imaginary. Space weaponry in general is something that may see some of the crazy and unusual weaponry from movies, shows and books come to life in the future, but like many people I would hope space can remain the peaceful place it has been, apart from the odd exploding star of course!

FURTHER READING

Sidearms at Atomic Rockets

Space Weapons at Atomic Rockets

(Article by Kerry Scullion, Education Support Officer)


2 Comments

Johnny · November 16, 2017 at 12:07

i do, think of these things.

i feel like we would eventually weaponize teleportation at some point..
can you imagine being able to teleport a nuke? mere seconds just, whhheewwemmm.. but, as you stated, N.’s Third Law.

Rods from god: a terrifying space weapon | Astronotes · August 17, 2015 at 18:43

[…] spaceflight and military communities but apart from a few tests of anti-satellite weapons, the odd armed space station and laser battlestation there have been mercifully few weapons in space. Yet the idea of bombarding […]

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