The Science of Videogame Weapons – Part 2
Ever wanted to call down fire from the sky and obliterate a small town of innocent people? Well I have, so I’ve spent some time researching how to do it. My intensive scientific research naturally lead me to videogames, specifically Gears of War’s Hammer of Dawn, and the Command & Conquer Ion Cannon.
Weapon: ORBITAL DEFENSE PLATFORM
(Hammer of Dawn, Ion Cannon)
There’s not much available on the technical side of the Hammer of Dawn, however we do know it is an orbital weapons platform, which basically fires a laser from space at the designated target. The Hammer of Dawn is introduced to the player in one of the tensest sequences in the Gears’ franchise – the Berserker in the mansion. After creeping around deserted corridors, a terrifying, monstrous hulk bursts through a wall, deftly evacuating the player’s bowels of any stored faecal-matter in a moment of involuntary de-clenching. Such an imposing beast is therefore only worthy of an equally imposing weapon – enter the Hammer of Dawn.
An orbital weapons platform such as this would need three basic components to work: a satellite, a designator, and a big frikkin’ laser. The laser itself is described as being powered by the fictional substance ‘Imulsion’. In the Gears of War universe, Imulsion is a presumably naturally occurring liquid compound which is highly energetic. It is basically oil on steroids, capable of delivering huge amounts of energy. Given that the key barrier to effective laser weapons today is the massive demand on power, an Imulsion-based laser is a neat in-universe solution that is entirely plausible within the mythos.
What about outside the mythos? Well, the idea is reminiscent of the old “Star Wars” project run by the US government – more accurately called the SDI (Strategic Defence Initiative). The idea was to create a unified defense network against incoming ballistic threats (ICBMs and other such missiles) using a variety of tactics. Part of the project included energy weapons housed in space; in other words satellites equipped with lasers that could destroy missiles in the air. Even though such space-weapons were never actually built, the principle was sound, and in recent years lasers have been mounted to military aircraft. The coolest example is the AC-130, which features an “Advanced Tactical Laser” that has been successfully used to destroy ground targets. Combine this solution with a standard issue laser-designator, and you’ve basically got a Hammer of Dawn.
The Ion Cannon from the Command & Conquer series is a similar idea to the Hammer of Dawn, but rather than a generic space-laser the method of delivery for this super-weapon is ions – a stream of charged atoms or molecules. While lasers fire photons (light particles) in directed waves, an Ion Cannon shoots out larger particles which are electromagnetically charged. One of the key differences is that an Ion Beam is usually associated with a lot of kinetic energy transfer – simply put, where lasers burn things, ions smash into things.
Ion beams are often used as propulsion for deep-space craft exploring the outer solar system, as their high efficiency means they can travel farther on less fuel. So the reality is that ion-beams are, at the moment, nothing more than the ‘Prius’ of outer space. As is the case with most directed energy weapons (lasers, ion cannons, plasma guns), the major barrier to creating a workable ray-gun is finding a way of providing huge amounts of power to a relatively small device. To give you an idea, the best ion thrusters we have ever sent to space exert the same amount of force as the weight of a single piece of paper in your hand. Creating a practical beam with the force to level cities is way out of our technological capability.
Before we completely reject the notion of satellites firing ion cannons, there is one cool project we should take note of. IBS is a concept concocted by the crazy, sexy European Space Agency. Far from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, IBS stands for “Ion Beam Shepherd”, and is an idea to build a satellite which fires an Ion Cannon, not at Earth, but into space. This concept has two proposed applications; firstly to knock space-junk out of orbit, and secondly to aim at incoming asteroids.
In the first case the Ion Cannon would fire on a piece of dangerous space junk, the force of the ions slowing it down until eventually it falls out of orbit and burns up harmlessly in the atmosphere. A similar principle would be used on dangerous asteroids; except we’d direct them away from the planet, rather than toward it. Whether IBS ever becomes more than an unfortunately named acronym is anybody’s guess, but the point is that, although very weak, ion cannons are real and there’s no reason we can’t stick them in space and blast things.
In the final part of this article-trilogy we’ll run through some of the more exotic weapons known to gamers; we’ll be drilling into skulls, firing sharks through land, and stabbing each other with pure energy.