Did Soviet Cosmonauts Take Deadly Laser Pistols to Outer Space — in the 1980s?

Soviet Laser Pistol.

In the 1980s, Russian astronauts (Cosmonauts) may have taken a prototype laser pistol with them into space. What was this retrofuturistic weapon, and how did it work? Was it real, only a prototype, or pure Soviet sci-fi propaganda? Read excerpts from three sources below for images, video and more information.

Soviet Laser Pistol.

Futuristic Pyrotechnics

Yes, these are real handheld laser weapons developed in the 1980s for cosmonauts. These futuristic pistols used pyrotechnic flashbulb ammunition, and their primary function was to disable optical sensors on enemy spacecraft or satellites. Allegedly the laser beams of these recoilless guns were energetic enough to burn through a helmet visor, or to blind anybody from 65 feet.

How did the Soviet laser pistol work?

In 1984, to protect manned orbital stations and long term manned stations, the Soviet Military Academy developed a really fantastic weapon – a fiber laser gun.

Soviet Laser Pistol.

The main requirements to the weapon were: 1) a small size; and 2) ability to destroy the optic systems of an enemy.

The main elements of the laser gun (as any laser) could be the active medium, a pump source and an optical resonator. But it was subsequently decided to replace the active medium with fiber-optic elements. Disposable pyrotechnic electronic flashes were used as a source of light pumping.

The gun’s laser beam maintains a “burning and blinding” effect at a distance of up to twenty meters.

Soviet Laser Pistol.
Soviet Laser Pistol.

Based on the pyrotechnic-flash laser pistol, a laser revolver was designed with a drum magazine. Its creators also announced the ability of the revolver to convert into a medical tool (scalpel) if necessary.

All experimental (i.e. prototyping, research and development) works were done manually. Prior to the start of production for the pistol’s flash elements, however, the conversion of the defence industry (?) put an end to the project.

Today this “wonder weapon” may be seen at the Museum of the Strategic Missile Forces of the Military Academy, named after Peter the Great in Moscow.

Only a prototype?

Soviet Laser Pistol.

A skeptical perspective from TheFirearmBlog:

The pistol may have functioned just like the original ruby laser built by Theodore Maiman in 1960 (photo below). This laser worked by “pumping” a synthetic ruby rod with very bright light from a flashtube. The ruby rod would then emit a short laser pulse.

The original ruby laser, built by Theodore Maiman in 1960.

The Soviet laser gun looks like it had a ruby rod instead of a barrel. It’s fed by cartridges from a magazine. Either those cartridges contain a chemical flash powder, or they were ultra-high discharge batteries/cells that could power the laser for one “shot”, which would be multiple pulses, before having to be disposed of.

The output of this laser would be minimal. A quick glance through Electronic Engineering papers from the 1960s and 1970s report scientists achieving just 6% efficiency with ruby lasers. In other words, there is no way that this laser would burn a hole in a US or British satellite. If cosmonauts really needed to do some damage, they had the nifty Soviet TP-82 Space Pistol on hand.

Bullets Made of Light

Soviet Laser Pistol.

Maybe the laser pistol had a more specific purpose:

Rather than blind an adversary or burn a hole in an opponent’s space suit, Russian cosmonauts may have designed the laser pistol for one sole purpose: shoot out the optics on enemy satellites.

The Russian cosmonauts had some pretty sneaky weaponry. But according to TheFirearmBlog (quoted above), this laser pistol probably didn’t have the oomph required to do any real damage. Its intended purpose was to give the cosmonauts the ability to destroy optical components on enemy satellites that were floating through space.

Soviet Laser Pistol.
Soviet Laser Pistol.

The “bullets” in the magazine are likely ultra-high discharge batteries that would power the laser for a short time, or possibly a form of chemical flash powder to create the same effect.

Even if it can’t burn holes through satellites, the Soviet laser pistol is a pretty sweet piece of gear.

Learn More

1. Nagy, Attila. (02 Apr 2016). The Ultimate List of Weapons Astronauts Have Carried Into Orbit. Gizmodo. Retrieved from http://gizmodo.com/the-ultimate-list-of-weapons-astronauts-have-carried-in-1768199454.

2. Johnson, Steve. (8 Oct 2013). The Soviet Laser Pistol. The Firearms Blog. Retrieved from http://www.thefirearmblog.com/blog/2013/10/08/soviet-laser-pistol/.

3. (5 Oct 2013). Laser Gun For a Soviet Cosmonaut. English/Russia. Retrieved from http://englishrussia.com/2013/10/05/laser-gun-for-a-soviet-cosmonaut/.

4. McCluskey, Brent. (10 Oct 2013). Soviet laser pistol: The secret space weapon of Russian cosmonauts. Guns dot com. Retrieved from http://www.guns.com/2013/10/10/soviet-laser-pistol-secret-weapon-russian-cosmonauts-4-photos/.

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A Dystopian Alternate History That Actually Happened: From USSR Armageddon to the 2008 U.S. Financial Meltdown

(Distilled from notes by technologist, author and entrepreneur Chris Anderson.)

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we worried about their nuclear physicists helping create weapons of mass destruction elsewhere.

A less heralded — and possibly more destructive — migration happened in the U.S. around the same time, when Congress cancelled the SSC. The SSC (Superconducting Super Collider) was meant to be the future of physics but, after budget overruns, the project was cancelled in 1993.

Many of the physicists in grad school who were training to work on the SSC went to Wall Street instead to work as “quants”, a new field at the time. Those quants created the algorithmic trading and incredibly complex derivatives that eventually led to 2008 crash.

Here’s a book on that migration:

My Life as a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance
by Emanuel Derman

Derman was one of the heroes of risk management in the 1990s, constantly pushing at the boundaries of what was possible, coming up with ever more sophisticated and ingenious structures. And yet a sober scepticism, learned the hard way all those years ago in university libraries, underpins his world view.

He is sardonic about his work: “The capacity to wreak destruction with your models provides the ultimate respectability,” he says. “Many of the Long Term Capital Management protagonists are back in business.”

Now teaching again full time, Derman has grown even more sceptical. “A decade of speaking with traders and theorists has made me wonder what ‘correct’ means,” he writes. “The more I look at the conflict between markets and theories, the more that limitations of models in the financial and human world become apparent to me.”

. . .

“We are still on a darkling plain,” he writes toward the end of his new book. “If you are a theorist you must never forget that you are traveling through lawless roads where the local inhabitants don’t respect your principles.”

That sense of being an intruder in outlaw territory lends an intriguing mood to Derman’s My Life As a Quant, a literate and entertaining memoir of his two-stage career — in physics and then financial engineering. Wall Street looks quite different from a nerd’s-eye view: “Geeks were fair game,” Derman reflects. Once, a chief trader who passed between him and a fellow quant “winced, clutched his head with both hands as though in excruciating pain, and exclaimed, ‘Aaarrggh-hhh! The force field! It’s too intense! Let me out of the way!”‘

Worth noting that the other things that came out of physics from that 1993 migration were the Web (CERN) and Big Data (supercomputers).

(PS: I was one of those physics students, but wasn’t clued in enough to even know what a quant was. So I did the Web thing instead.)