Science Fiction or Science Fact: Why Star Trek Opted For Phasers Over Lasers

In the past, we looked at why lightsabers will likely never be holstered to our hips, unless we live in a galaxy far, far away. But what about in “the final frontier”? In the Star Trek universe, phasers are far more commonplace than laser-based weapons and technology. Today, we’re going to look at why the creators chose to use mostly phasers, over lasers, while also analyzing whether or not phasers are any more likely to exist than the mostly-debunked technology of the other space-adventure universe.

In the original series’ pilot, as well as some of the following episodes, lasers were present aboard and used against The Enterprise. Giving credibility to the widely-held belief that Star Trek’s creators were among most scientifically-aware science fiction developers of possibly all time, they realized that lasers would only work as a weapon in the show for a small period of time. As the viewing public, and world at large, learned more about lasers and their capabilities, the creators felt that the audience would eventually catch on to the inaccurate portrayal of laser technology. In The Next Generation, the laser is considered a primitive weapon, opting instead for phasers, a different sort of energy-based weapon, created for the Star Trek universe.

That is not to say that lasers were completely eliminated from Star Trek. The Borg cutter weapon is a notable exception to the deviation from lasers. Using directed laser energy, the cutting beam found on Borg ships was able to remove sections of planets and ships, with exact precision. There were other small instances of lasers in the series, but mostly gave way to phasers and other directed energy weapons.

The word phaser comes from “Photon” and “Maser.” At the time of Star Trek’s initial development, the laser was relatively new. The maser, however, had been around for a while, and was generally known to be capable of producing long-range, coherent beams of electromagnetic radiation. The photon masers in Star Trek release “rapid nadons,” a fictional subatomic particle.  Additionally, a phaser can allow for a change of power (Such as “stun” or “kill”)  as opposed to a laser, which has one solid, consistent, beam of light and energy. When dealing with weaponry, a beam that can be adjusted and changed depending on who or what it is being fired at, has a number of advantages in cosmic battle.

So, are phaser weapons any more likely to exist than a lightsaber? Unfortunately, they are both entirely works of science fiction. While Directed Energy Weapons have been in development and researched for decades, the laser weapons of the real world are much closer to a laser pointer than a sophisticated ray gun. They all suffer from the same problem known as divergence. Essentially, laser beams will become larger, depending on the size and wavelength. Longer wavelengths become larger, faster than shorter ones. Shorter wavelengths, however, are more prone to scattering due to rain, dust, smoke, or other particulates in the air.  A larger beam is less susceptible to this, but typically possesses less energy, making it a less effective weapon.

The biggest problem in developing phaser, or even laser weapons? The amount of power needed to even use the weapon. Like lightsabers, there is no current way to condense the mechanisms necessary to give energy to a laser of weapon-like power into a device that can fit into one’s hands. Even including it on a massive spacecraft would likely pose too big of a weight burden to be worth using.

To put it in perspective, current attempts at developing laser weapons require the support of a large truck, and that’s just to test the laser. Not to mention, the level of heat that would be generated when powering the weapon would be too hot to handle, or be anywhere near comfortable around. Meaning a cooling system would be necessary for the weapon, adding even more weight, and equipment to an already lofty weapon. Unless researchers develop a super-battery, or find a way to decrease the heat created when powering a laser, it is safe to say that we will not be firing phasers, or even laser guns, anytime soon.