Particle beam weapons are among the most prolific weapons seen in popular science fiction. They have been known by a plethora of fantastic-sounding names: Particle Accelerators Guns, Ion Cannons, Proton Beams, Lightning Rays, etc, etc.
Meson guns, Phasers, and Disintegrators are all specialized types of particle beam weapons, and will be discussed in their own articles.
Particle accelerators, also called atom smashers or particle colliders, are a well-developed technology used in scientific research for decades. They use electric and magnetic fields to accelerate and direct charged particles along a predetermined path, and electrostatic “lenses” to focus these streams for collisions. The Cathode Ray Tube in many televisions and computer monitors are also very simple types of particle accelerator. More powerful versions include tokamaks and cyclotrons used in nuclear research. Links to more detailed descriptions of this technology are at the bottom of this page.
A particle beam is a weaponized version of this technology. It accelerates charged particles (in most cases electrons, positrons, protons, or ionized atoms, but very advanced versions can use more exotic particles) to near-light speed and then shoots them at a distant target. The particles have tremendous kinetic energy which they impart to particles in the target’s surface, inducing near-instantaneous and catastrophic superheating.
Particle beams come in two broad categories: charged and neutral.
Charged particle beams are meant to be used primarily in an atmosphere. In a vacuum, the individual charged particles will repel each other, causing the beam to quickly lose focus and dissipate. In an atmosphere, however, the beam is said to “self-pinch;” it ionizes air molecules in its path, which in turn repel the like-charged beam. Since the beam is repelled from every point around its circumference equally, it can retain its overall particle density over a given distance.
A similar mechanism can be seen in the much more familiar natural phenomenon of lightning, and the two share a number of common characteristics. But whereas lightning will follow the often-jagged path of least electrical resistance, a particle beam will forcefully punch its own path through the air.
However, this act of ionization saps energy from the beam, limiting its effective range. Depending on how much energy the shot initially had, this might give the weapon a typical range limitation of several hundred meters to several kilometers before it becomes too weak to effectively damage a target.
One major advantage of a charged particle beam over a laser in an atmosphere is that the particle beam is practically unhampered by almost any kind of weather. It will punch through snow and rain and fog as readily as clear air, and the ionization effect is unaffected by any such phenomenon.
In space, without air, the ionization effect is not present, and the beam will quickly fly apart as the like-charged particles repel each other. Neutral particle beams do not have this limitation, however, and can remain focused in the beam for great distances. However, neutral particles cannot be accelerated using electromagnetic fields. While this may seem limiting, an easy solution is just to neutralize a charged beam just as its leaving the weapon’s accelerator.
Several different forms of this “neutralizer” component have been suggested. In one case its assumed that protons or ionized atomic nuclei are being accelerated, and by adding an electron to each of the particles to form a whole atom, the beam becomes electrically neutral. In another, hydrogen or deuterium atoms are exposed to an extreme electrical charge, and that these extra electrons are stripped form the atoms as they leave the accelerator aperture.
One concept is to put a physical barrier, a foil or gas, on the end of the accelerator. As the beam passes through it, it picks up or takes away the electrons needed. While relatively simple in concept and execution, this scheme has the disadvantage of sapping some energy from the beam as it passes through, reducing its potential effectiveness and range. The neutralizing barrier would also have to be replaced after each shot.
Another idea is to intersect the proton beam with an electron beam. The protons or nuclei pick up the needed electrons, and get a slight boost from the electrons’ own energy. However, this in turn can lead to reduced effective range, as the increase in energy also leads to an increase in heat in the beam, causing the more energetic particles to spread out faster.
Still, because they are not losing energy to ionizing the air, neutral particle beams can have truly epic ranges in space, on the order of many thousands of kilometers. They can still be deflected and warped by the gravitational fields of stars and planets, however. Even though these deflections can weaken the focus of the beam, systems can be set up to actually take advantage of such phenomena, such as “curving” a beam slightly so it can hit a target that might otherwise be occluded by the curve of a planet.
Particle beams can also be designed to deflect the beam to a certain degree within the barrel, so their aiming can be fine-tuned without having to move the gun significantly. This can be perhaps as much as forty-five degrees or more from the line of the accelerator, depending on the weapon’s exact configuration. This will be of significant use in space, as the immense ranges involved would require ultrafine pinpoint targeting that would not be easily achieved with turret tracking or ship maneuvering alone.
Particle beams also have two secondary damaging effects. Though often minor considerations in light of the catastrophic damage of a direct hit, these effects may still be felt even if a target is missed or simply near the beam when it fires.
The first is that the outer fringes of the beam tends to spread out along its path, creating a diffuse “halo” of high-energy radiation in a radius around the main beam. Thus, even objects not struck directly by the beam may still suffer a major dose of radiation, the exact type depending on the type of particles in the beam.
Another effect particular to the charged versions of this weapon is that the beam and its radiation ‘halo’ ionizes any particles in comes into contact with, generating an electromagnetic pulse. As charged weapons are for use exclusively within an atmosphere, this EMP will be in effect all along the beam’s length and envelop the target point as well. Even if the target survives a direct hit by the beam and the pulse of radiation, it could still be neutralized by the EMP. In fact, a beam could be powered down so that its only significant damage would be EMP, potentially taking out an unshielded target without a great deal of physical damage or loss of life.
Particle beams can be fired either in pulses or in a continuous beam. Like with lasers, to maximize the amount of energy in the beam, and therefore penetration, range, and damage to the target, pulses may be preferable in most combat circumstances against mobile targets. Continuous beam fire, though not as powerful as pulses, would have its place in battle, but will probably be useful in non-warfare applications.
Heat regulation will always be a consideration in designing a particle beam weapon system. Similar in some respects to a coilgun, a particle beam requires the generation of very potent electromagnetic fields--on the order of tens of megawatts of power in the coils--along the length of the linear accelerator that makes up its barrel. The super-high currents required in turn create a great deal of heat that could affect performance or even start melting the weapon if not dealt with. Some real-world research accelerators require cool-down periods of several hours between firings.
Larger systems can use very large radiators or heat sinks to deal with this problem, especially if the weapon is on a space- or water-borne platform. Smaller weapons may need more elaborate active cooling systems.
Because of the ionization effect, most types of particle beams would actually be visible in the atmosphere, appearing as blue-white beams, or the way lightning would look if it moved in a perfectly straight line. However, in space, without any air molecules to ionize, particle beams will be as invisible to the naked eye as lasers.
Particle accelerators require a lot of power to produce a beam energy-dense enough to cause significant damage. The linear magnetic accelerators would also prove unusually long at lower tech levels, into order ensure proper particle velocities upon leaving the barrel.
Both of these factors would mean that the first weaponized particle accelerators may be prohibitively large, and may be used solely in an immobile point-defense role. Because of their near-light speed velocity, all-weather utility, and high damage potential, they would make ideal anti-missile and anti-aircraft defenses.
Particle beams at this tech level may also be deployed on vehicles large enough to support their power plants, such as naval vessels or railroad cars.
The first particle beam space weapons are likely to be used as orbital anti-ballistic-missile satellites, as envisioned by the Reagan-era SDI program. Their characteristics make them more ideal for this task than most other proposed technologies. They can reach the target much faster than electromagnetic launchers like railguns or coilguns, and do not have the problems with focusing over extreme distances that lasers have.
Orbital particle weapons have at times been seen in various science fiction sources as ground-targeting death beams (the anime cyberpunk classic Akira is a good example.) However, realistically such beams (which in space would have to be neutrally charged) would quickly dissipate upon hitting the upper fringes of the atmosphere. Such a beam would have to be epically overpowered to be able to punch through a hundred miles of air to the ground and still do significant damage.
At this Tech Level, a number of different technologies begin coming on line that could create the first real conflicts confined exclusively to space. Because of their reach, speed, and potential power, particle beams would be among the first technologies adopted for this brave new frontier of destruction.
To maximize its effectiveness as a mobile weapon system, particle beams may be configured as spinal mount weapons aboard both manned and unmanned spacecraft. A spinal mount weapon is a single large armament system that the rest of the ship is built around; it literally becomes the “spine” of the ship. The Wave Motion Gun from Space Battleship Yamato/Starblazers is perhaps the best known example from popular science fiction.
Generally, the longer the length of the accelerator, the greater the speed that can be imparted to the particles in its beam. Also, the more powerful its electromagnetic fields, the faster said particles can be brought up to speed. Particle beam spinal-mount ships would likely appear long and thin, almost rifle-like, and the same power plant that might feed its engines might also be adopted to divert some or even all of its power to the ship’s primary weapon.
Particle beams of smaller size and lesser power can be mounted on turrets and barbettes and secondary bays, to function as defensive weapons against incoming ships, ordinance, and shrapnel.
As new mobile power sources and technologies come on line, more compact particle beams with shorter linear accelerators will be able to deliver the punch as their larger, lower-tech cousins. Whereas before particle beams were confined to vehicles with large mobile power plants, a new generation of energy propagating technologies, including explosive power generators, flywheel batteries, and superconducting batteries allow them to be mounted on smaller platforms, such as aircraft and armored fighting vehicles.
The addition of particle beams will radically change the strategies of the tactical battlefield. They travel at near light speed, which for tactical distances is pretty much instantaneous. But unlike laser weapons, which also may be in wide-spread use at this tech level, they are not easily stymied by obscuration or reflective countermeasures.
As power propagation technologies continue to become smaller and more potent, creation of man-portable particle accelerators become possible. Like with many weapons that undergo such a miniaturization process, they may at first be large and bulky for one person to carry, relegating them to squad-support weapons. Even so, given the Tech Level, its also very likely that advanced support harnesses or exoskeleton armors may be available to the average trooper, allowing them to use these bulky weapons in conjunction with such technology. Smaller, less powerful, rifle-like weapons for use by the unaugmented soldier may also be available.
Even at man-portable sizes, particle beams will eat a tremendous amount of current with each shot. At this Tech Level number of compact but potent power source options are available, the most significant is that of the fusor--a miniaturized, portable fusion reactor that can provide the weapon with a near-unlimited stream of current for its accelerator coils. Other options include explosive power generators, advanced flywheel batteries, advanced ultracapacitors, and superconducting batteries. Some of these could be integrated into the weapon itself, such as explosive power generators, which could come in cartridge form and used very similarly to modern ammunition magazine. Some, such s fusors or flywheel batteries, would need to be carried in a separate backpack or beltpack module and connected to the weapon via cable.
Another factor adding to the weapon's bulk is the need for an effective thermal regulation system. All the current used to charge its acceleration coils can produce a great deal of excess heat. Like with the weapon's power source, the cooling system may need to be stored in a separate backpack and attached to the main accelerator by cables. In fact, the main limiting factor in the weapon's rate of fire may not be the availability of power, but rather how many times it can fire before its cooling system is overwhelmed.
Particle weapons will give the average user a near-lightspeed weapon that will not be hampered by weather conditions or laser countermeasures. In an atmosphere, they still can be stymied by powerful electromagnetic fields, and if particle beam firearms become prevalent on the battle field, use of these fields as defensive measures may become popular as well.
Fire, Fusion And Steel: The Traveller Technical Architecture
On The Web:
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