A particle-beam weapon uses a high-energy beam of atomic or subatomic particles to damage the target by disrupting its atomic and/or molecular structure. A particle-beam weapon is a type of directed-energy weapon, which directs energy in a particular and focused direction using particles with minuscule mass. Some particle-beam weapons have potential practical applications, e.g. as an antiballistic missile defense system for the United States and its cancelled Strategic Defense Initiative. They have been known by myriad names: phasers, disruptors, particle accelerator guns, ion cannons, proton beams, lightning rays, rayguns, etc.
The concept of particle-beam weapons comes from sound scientific principles and experiments currently underway around the world. One effective process to cause damage to or destroy a target is to simply overheat it until it is no longer operational. However, after decades of R&D, particle-beam weapons are still very much at the research stage and it remains to be seen if or when they will be deployed as practical, high-performance military weapons.
Particle accelerators are a well-developed technology used in scientific research for decades. They use electromagnetic 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 twentieth-century televisions and computer monitors is a very simple type of particle accelerator. More powerful versions include synchrotrons and cyclotrons used in nuclear research. A particle-beam weapon 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 accelerate other particles such as mercury nuclei) to near-light speed and then shoots them at a target. These particles have tremendous kinetic energy which they impart to matter in the target, inducing near-instantaneous and catastrophic superheating at the surface, and when penetrating deeper, ionization effects which can be especially detrimental to electronics in the target. However, high-power accelerators are extremely massive (sometimes in the order of kilometers, like the LHC), with highly constricted construction, operation and maintenance requirements, and thus unable to be weaponized using present or near-future technologies.
Charged particle beams diverge rapidly due to mutual repulsion, so neutral particle beams are more commonly proposed. A neutral-particle-beam weapon ionizes atoms by either stripping an electron off of each atom, or by allowing each atom to capture an extra electron. The charged particles are then accelerated, and neutralized again by adding or removing electrons afterwards.
Cyclotron particle accelerators, linear particle accelerators, and Synchrotron particle accelerators can accelerate positively charged hydrogen ions until their velocity approaches the speed of light, and each individual ion has a kinetic energy range of 100 MeV to 1000 MeV or more. Then the resulting high energy protons can capture electrons from electron emitter electrodes, and be thus electrically neutralized. This creates an electrically neutral beam of high energy hydrogen atoms, that can proceed in a straight line at near the speed of light to smash into its target and damage it.
The pulsed particle beam emitted by such a weapon may contain 1 gigajoule of kinetic energy or more. The speed of a beam approaching that of light (299,792,458 m/s in a vacuum) in combination with the energy created by the weapon was thought to negate any realistic means of defending a target against the beam. Target hardening through shielding or materials selection was thought to be impractical or ineffective in 1984, especially if the beam could be maintained at full power and precisely focused on the target.
The U.S. Defense Strategic Defense Initiative put into development the technology of a neutral particle beam to be used as a weapon in outer space. Neutral beam accelerator technology was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. A prototype neutral hydrogen beam weapon was launched aboard a suborbital sounding rocket from White Sands Missile Range in July 1989 as part of the Beam Experiments Aboard Rocket (BEAR) project. It reached a maximum altitude of 124 miles, and successfully operated in space for 4 minutes before returning to earth intact. In 2006, the recovered experimental device was transferred from Los Alamos to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
- Roberds, Richard M (July–August 1984), "Introducing the Particle-Beam Weapon", Air University Review, USA: Air Force, archived from the original on 2012-04-17, retrieved 2006-05-17.
- Neutral Particle Beam (NPB), Federation of American Scientists, 2005.
- P. G. O'Shea; T. A. Butler; M. T. Lynch; K. F. McKenna; et al. "A Linear Accelerator in Space – The Beam Experiment Aboard Rocket" (PDF). Proceedings of the Linear Accelerator Conference 1990, Los Alamos National Laboratory.
- "'Star Wars' Beam Weapon Has Successful Space Test". Los Angeles Times. July 18, 1989.
- "Neutral Particle Beam Accelerator, Beam Experiment Aboard Rocket". Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Retrieved 15 May 2021.