Soviet Laser Pistol

Soviet Laser Pistol

The USSR tried to build a handheld laser pistol for cosmonauts to carry. The project was soon terminated and never made it to orbit.

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According to one memoir, Major General Viktor Sulakvelidze, who worked as a professor at the Peter the Great Academy, led the development team in the laser handgun project. Boris Duvanov, meanwhile, dealt with theoretical and experimental research associated with the secret program. The concept of the laser handgun was greatly aided by the fact that sensitive and crucial navigation optics aboard the satellites could be taken out of business with a relatively low amount of light energy—around 10 joules, Russian sources estimated. The optical system of the target would magnify the incoming flash to fry vulnerable sensors at its focus.

The main challenge for the creators of the laser gun was a miniature flashlight, which would be used to “pump” electrons in the laser to a higher energy state, needed to generate a powerful light beam. Also, all the chemicals used inside the gun had to be non-toxic for the atmosphere of the space station, and fire-safe to boot.

To meet all the requirements, Soviet engineers designed a lamp filled with oxygen and containing metallic foil or powder. Instead of magnesium, which was traditionally used in strobe lights, the laser would be “fueled” by zirconium, which produced three times more light energy. Some metallic salt additives were used to match the wavelength of the flash with the range of the laser system. A yttrium aluminum garnet crystal initially served as a “medium” where the infrared laser beam would be generated after each flash.

The Laser Gun with Pyrotechnic Flash Lamp, as the project came to be officially known, was reportedly ready for use in 1984, seven years after the USSR had sent its final crew to the Almaz space station. Although the civilian space station program has continued in the Soviet Union and later in Russia, it appears that the laser pistol never made it into orbit. Even so, it can be considered a precursor of today’s laser pointers and other similar gizmos.

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