The science fiction technologies portrayed in movies, books, and video games have captivated people for generations. The creators of these science fiction universes have taken existing technologies, or created new ones, and then determined how they could be used in their universe. Not all of the technologies portrayed are scientifically accurate though, sometimes they are highly advanced concepts of current technologies. Still others are impossible to achieve, like teleportation. Many of the technologies that we see today have been derived in some form from science fiction. Many of the technologies shown in science fiction will forever stay as science fiction, but there are still many technologies that can become reality. Today, it is now possible to replace lost limbs and control them, at least partially, using only your mind and to even “feel” sensations. While the prosthetics are still cumbersome, it is a huge step forward towards science fiction becoming reality. Due to the rapid technological growth that the eve of the 21st century has brought with it, the iconic technologies portrayed in science fiction such as railguns, space travel, and fusion energy sources may become reality sooner than previously thought as research and prototypes of several of these technologies are already in development.
One of the many technologies depicted in science fiction universes is the electromagnetic launcher. The HALO video game universe uses this technology in Magnetic Accelerator Cannons (MACs) which are the main offensive weapon for the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) warships. These massive weapons are built into the superstructure of UNSC warships and they fire 600-ton slugs at up to 30,000 meters per second. They are capable of completely destroying enemy capital ships and even creating terrestrial craters several miles wide with shockwaves powerful enough to knock ships out of the air.
Railguns are a weaponized form of electromagnetic launchers, but the technology can also be used for naval catapults on aircraft carriers, missile-defense systems, and mass drivers to launch spacecraft. The basic concept of an electromagnetic launcher is that the object is accelerated by extremely powerful electromagnets to reach incredible speeds. When a powerful current is applied to a pair of positive and negative parallel conducting rails, it exerts an electromagnetic force (Lorentz force) on the armature and accelerates the object to incredible speeds (Zhao et al. 1312). When applied to railguns, either a very long rail or an extremely intense level of current is required. Rather than using explosive projectiles to cause damage, railguns use extremely dense, solid, hypervelocity projectiles that rely solely on kinetic energy to cause damage (Chand (Retd)). Railguns can be superior in every regard to conventional canons.
What distinguishes railguns from other weapons is its use of hypervelocity projectiles without explosives. Hypervelocity projectiles have a muzzle velocity of greater than 2000 meters per second (m/s), whereas modern tank cannons using armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding shot (APFSDS) have a muzzle velocity of about 1600-1800 m/s (Darnse and Singh 341). Without the need for explosive chemical projectiles and propellants, railguns eliminate a significant safety hazard for its users while also significantly increasing range and decreasing travel time (Chand (Retd)). All-metal railgun projectiles can be stored in a much smaller area than conventional weapon projectiles significantly increasing ammo capacity. Conventional gas expansion weapons have reached a limit of about 1500 m/s and a range of about 50 miles (Adams 1). The higher speed of railgun projectiles allows computers to be much more precise and accurate when hitting enemy targets, especially fast moving ones. At such speeds, it is possible to pass through a fully armored tank even with a relatively low mass projectile given that it is long enough and of sufficient hardness, density, ductility, and strength, due to its immense kinetic energy potential (Anderson Jr.). This makes railgun projectiles much more effective against highly armored targets with an effective range of about 160 km (Chand (Retd)). Railgun projectiles can be equipped with explosive tips but the pure kinetic energy of the projectiles are sufficiently lethal. Current 5-inch naval guns have a muzzle energy of about 10 megajoules (MJ) whereas, with enough research and development, naval railguns can achieve muzzle energies from 60 to 300 MJ (Adams 2). Hypervelocity projectiles are much more suitable for destroying heavily-armored targets and studies show that railgun projectiles are three to five times more deadly than current weapon systems (Adams 4). Since railguns use solid projectiles rather than chemical explosives, they also hold the advantage of decreased cost for ammunition.
The most significant problem with equipping military equipment with railguns is power consumption. Railguns require a large amount of sustained currents in order to stay operational Most of the U.S. Navy’s current destroyers do not have the necessary power production to supply the massive energy requirements of these railguns (Chand (Retd)). The only class of Navy ships capable of producing enough power to operate a railgun are the Zumwalt-class destroyers, of which two are operational and one more is under construction (Lamothe). These destroyers can generate up to 78 megawatts (MW) of power, which is more than enough to power some of the most powerful railguns in development. The last Zumwalt destroyer was considered for replacing one of its 155 mm naval guns for a 32 MJ railgun firing 23-pound projectiles at 10 shots per minute (Mizokami). The Zumwalt-class destroyer only requires 20 MW which leaves 58 MW to power railguns or other experimental weapons while at full power output. Such high energy-consuming weapons were anticipated and two large gas turbine generators were incorporated into its design in order to provide the incredible amount of power (Chand (Retd)). Even with the high energy consumption of the railgun, the Zumwalt still has plenty of energy to spare for other experimental weapons.
One of the largest constraints on developing or advancing technology is how much energy we can pack into the smallest space possible and how efficiently it can be produced. Science fiction draws from many types of energy production from fusing atoms together, breaking them apart, or collecting the energy from an entire star by enveloping it in solar panels. The Star Wars universe used many types of energy sources, including fusion energy to power hyperdrives. Fusion is the energy source of the future, and by far the closest to being fully realized. Research into fusion energy has increased this past decade as the need for more power has grown. Fusion reactions occur when atomic nuclei come into close enough proximity that the nuclear force which attracts protons and neutrons is stronger than the electrostatic force between electron clouds and the nuclei fuse into a large nucleus. This process is only energy favorable until iron is created, at which point it requires more energy than it releases and signals the death of a star. Fusion is a promising candidate for replacing fossil fuels as the primary energy source of the world but being able to harness its energy is still a few decades away (Barbarino). Fusion energy carries with it many benefits to conventional sources of energy such as sustainability, no CO2 emissions, no radioactive waste with long lifespans, and no risk of meltdowns. The most accessible fusion reaction involves using deuterium and tritium.
Deuterium is a stable isotope of hydrogen with one neutron and one proton and can be extracted from seawater to produce enough deuterium to outlast the lifetime of the sun (Magaud). Tritium is an unstable isotope of hydrogen with two neutrons and one proton with a half-life of 12.3 years that decays into helium-3 by emitting beta radiation (Zerriffi). Once a mixture of deuterium and tritium is heated to a plasma state within a magnetic field, they can be fused to create helium-5 which is inherently unstable and releases a neutron. A vacuum chamber encloses the entire reaction and prevents heat loss. The inside walls facing the plasma are exposed to an enormous amount of stress, since they are the first physical surface encountered by the plasma. Despite the stress exerted on the wall, no direct contact is made. As the helium-5 concentration increases with the combustion rate it will start to dilute the plasma and create more losses through radiation so it must be extracted by a divertor (Magaud). Neutrons ejected from the creation of helium-5 are absorbed in breeder blankets containing lithium-6. Neutron activation of lithium-6 will replenish the supply of tritium although overall tritium production will decrease as the lithium in the breeder blankets is burnt up (Shimwell et al. 1868). The loss of neutrons is inevitable, which means an adequate amount of tritium cannot be maintained. To rectify the loss of neutrons, neutron multipliers such as beryllium are incorporated into the breeder blanket. In the case of this reaction, 80% of fusion energy is carried by the neutrons that release their energy in the tritium breeding blankets as heat. The vacuum chamber, breeder blankets, and first wall are cooled by a heat exchange system which is used to generate steam within a conventional turbine generating electricity (Magaud).
Currently, one of the most difficult aspects of spaceflight is overcoming Earth’s gravity and getting into space. Using rockets to send components into orbit is incredibly expensive and will most definitely require multiple rockets. At least for now it would be incredibly difficult to build spaceships on the surface of the Earth and fly them in and out of orbit like in Star Wars. Another alternative to launching rockets into space is to construct a space elevator. A space elevator connects the surface of a planet and a terminal station in a geosynchronous orbit where a counterweight maintains tension (Pearson et al. 3). In Star Wars, space stations were usually connected to heavily populated planets by skyhooks and became symbols of power during the reign of the Empire. Larger spaceships would be able to dock at the orbital station to load and unload cargo rather than land the massive ship on the planet itself. It currently costs thousands of dollars per kilogram of cargo sent into orbit but building a space elevator can bring those costs down to as much as $200 per kilogram (O’Brien 22). Once a fully functional space elevator is built it would be 95% cheaper than using conventional rockets (Basulto). The advantages are clear: facilitated orbital delivery of payloads without the need of fuel, reduced pollution of the atmosphere, the ability to create permanent bases in orbit for research and production, and a gateway for human expansion beyond our solar system (Sadov and Nuralieva 230).
A space elevator must be constructed of extremely strong, yet lightweight materials as it tapers off into orbit. The material must be able to bear the tension of its own weight as well as any cargo being transported. The strongest steels have a breaking point of about 40 km and the strongest synthetic fibers have breaking lengths of about 400 km, much shorter than the required height of a functional space elevator (Sadov and Nuralieva 230). Carbon nanotubes are incredibly strong and lightweight, so they are one of the most promising materials. Carbon nanotubes have a tensile strength 100 times greater than steel with only a sixth of the weight (O’Brien 22). The problem with using carbon nanotubes is that scientists believe that the hexagonal bonds will rip apart well before the required height of the space elevator and so far the longest strands of carbon nanotubes have reached only a few inches (Feltman). Despite this, it has been theorized that carbon nanotubes can be used for a myriad of applications which will allow for further refinement and improvement to increase its tensile strength. Another alternative to carbon nanotubes comes from a recent discovery by Penn State University called diamond nanothreads. In regards to this new material, Penn State chemistry professor John Badding said “One of our wildest dreams for the nanomaterials we are developing is that they could be used to make the super-strong, lightweight cables that would make possible the construction of a space elevator which so far has existed only as a science-fiction idea.”
Spaceships are one of the hallmarks in every science fiction universe. They are the key to travel beyond Earth and a gateway to human space expansion. The nearest theorized habitable planet, Proxima Centauri B, is 4.3 light years away, but it orbits around a small, cool, red dwarf star. With current spacecraft technology, this voyage will take hundreds of years (Peck). The closest stars similar to that of our Sun are Alpha Centauri A and B, a binary star system, which are 4.4 light years away and has roughly a 75% chance of having a habitable planet (Billings). If humanity ever wants, or needs, to expand beyond our home planet then these star systems are our best chance at finding a new home. In order to reach these star systems in a reasonable amount of time, spaceships must be equipped with faster and more efficient thrusters. They must also be equipped with complex navigational systems and life support if humans are along for the ride. There are currently many ideas such as fusion engines, antimatter thrusters, or solar sails to reach considerable fractions of the speed of light. One of the most outlandish, but possibly the easiest with today’s technology is an idea called “wafersat” which involves using small, propulsionless, one gram probes attached to one meter sails propelled by directed energy lasers. It requires 50 million one-kilowatt laser amplifiers on a laser array in orbit that fire photons at the sail and propel it at speeds up to 20% of the speed of light, or 60,000 km/s (Peck). These incredibly cheap probes can be used to rapidly explore enormous amounts of the galaxy surrounding our solar system. Solar sails can also be used that are propelled by photons from the sun, but they require massive sails in order to reach speeds of about 13% of the speed of light. Solar sails could be used on large spacecraft to reach Alpha Centauri in 32 years (O’Brien 22). This concept can also be used on larger crafts albeit with slower speeds. Another option for rockets would be to use fusion energy. For nuclear fusion rockets, the fusion of deuterium and tritium held within a magnetic confinement reactor would be suitable for space applications (Deutsch and Tahir 607). By using this reaction, spacecraft can reach speeds of about 12% of the speed of light and potentially even faster as more research is done (Peck).
Antimatter is the fastest form of interstellar travel and the ideal fuel source for space travel in many science fiction universes like Star Trek. Rather than using antimatter to propel rockets, Star Trek uses it to provide the energy for a warp drive allowing for faster than light travel. Faster than light travel violates Einstein’s theory of special relativity but the use of antimatter rockets is still a viable possibility in the near future. Antimatter rockets traveling at speeds of up to 40% of the speed of light can reach Alpha Centauri in a couple years (Dorminey). For a rocket to reach Mars using conventional chemical rockets it would need tons of fuel, but it would only need tens of milligrams of antimatter to get there. Some antimatter annihilation reactions, such as proton and antiproton reactions, produce high-energy gamma ray blasts which can penetrate cells, break apart molecules, and irradiate the engines by fragmenting its atoms. Electron and positron annihilations create gamma rays with 400 times less energy (Steigerwald). Antimatter is not readily available on Earth, since it is immediately annihilated, and so it must be created in particle accelerators at laboratories like Fermilab or CERN (Dorminey).
When antimatter and normal matter collide, their masses are completely converted into energy instantaneously. In comparison, the energy released from atomic bombs only release about 3% of their mass as energy (Steigerwald). In terms of energy density, a reaction of equal parts of matter and antimatter provides the highest of any known propellant. The most efficient chemical rockets produce about 1 x 107 J/kg, nuclear fusion provides 3 x 1014 J/kg, and antimatter following Einstein’s equation E=mc2 releases about 9 x 1016 J/kg of energy (Deutsch and Tahir 609). In the event of a launch failure, fusion reactors could release radioactive particles that can spread across a wide area whereas antimatter would only release a flash of gamma rays that would disappear instantly in a very small area. The largest downside of antimatter is the cost to create positrons, which currently costs about $250 million for 10 milligrams and can only be created in particle accelerators (Steigerwald). Although this seems incredibly high, current chemical rockets cost thousands of dollars per kilogram of the spacecraft and with more research, the cost for producing antimatter will inevitably decrease. Another problem with antimatter is storage since positrons will annihilate any electrons in the container walls that they come into contact with. To stop antimatter particles from colliding, they must be placed in a Penning Trap that suspends them using electromagnetic fields and supercooling the container to near absolute zero (Deutsch and Tahir 610).
By devoting more research to these science fiction technologies, they can become fully realized within a few decades as scientists push the boundaries of what is possible. While a lot of science fictional technology will always be fictional, railguns, space elevators, space travel and many others are all based on real science and will become a reality in the future. It is possible that in the next few decades, the future will be completely unrecognizable from today. Many fictional technologies seem like they may stay as science fiction forever, but with enough research and development, these may be the next piece of science fiction that becomes science fact.
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PAPER BY Auri Glucksnis