We’ve looked into mass weapons, now let’s take a peek at lasers.
Comparatively, lasers are far more complex than any of the weapon designs we’ve looked into, with far more components and considerations.
For example, in module design, railguns and the like can be optimized by simple tweaking and trial and error. On the other hand, it is very difficult to do so when designing lasers. The relations between the inputs and outputs are not only nonlinear, they are absolutely not monotonic, so simply using trial and error to find ideal cases is not always possible.
While there was an explosion of different design options and choices for railguns as we saw in Origin Stories, with lasers, it was far worse. First you’ll choose your laser type from amongst a staggering array of types. Then you’ll need a pumping source, which includes a nearly infinite number of pumping and lasing geometries, each with different advantages. And you’ll probably want to add a nonlinear crystal to harness Frequency Switching in order to double, triple, or quadruple your photon frequency.
Then you need to worry about the optics between each and every subsystem, ensuring the photons don’t seriously damage each lens, mirror, or nonlinear crystal at each point. Plus, you need to arbitrarily focus your beam at different distances, either with a Zoom Lens or with a Deformable Mirror (though in practice, zoom lens tend to be impractical for extremely long ranges, meaning you’re usually stuck with using a deformable mirror).
Also, and if you want to pulse your laser, you’ll need to use Mode Locking, Q Switching, or Gain Switching to do so. Finally, while mechanical stress are basically irrelevant for lasers (recoil of lasers is minuscule), thermal stresses are huge. Cooling your laser effectively is one of the most important parts of building a working laser.
Laser construction is not for the faint of heart, but the outputs of lasers are actually fairly simple compared to mass weapons. While mass weapons produce a projectile of varying dimensions and materials at a certain speed, possibly with excess temperature, and possibly carrying a complex payload, lasers just shoot a packet of photons. Even if the laser is continuous, the beam fired can be considered series of discrete packets.
Since laser beams move at the speed of light, it is actually impossible to dodge a laser unless you are always dodging. This is because the speed of light is the speed at which information travels in the universe. Thus, you can never determine where a laser will be until it actually hits you. This would be impossibly overpowered in warfare were it not for diffraction.
A packet of photons is focused on a single point of a certain size, and carries a discrete amount of energy of a single wavelength/frequency. Technically, due to quantum mechanics, particularly the Uncertainty Principle, there will be many different wavelengths, an uncertain size, and an uncertain amount of energy. These quantum effects are glossed over because approximating the entire packet as a discrete bundle is both simpler and still remains very close to reality.
The only quantum effect that significantly affects the output of a laser in terms of warfare is Diffraction.
Diffraction causes a laser beam to diffuse the further it gets from its exit aperture, spreading out the energy of the laser. This is a problem because the energy a beam carries is not what inflicts damage. The energy per unit area, or Fluence, is what causes damage. For continuous beams, it would be the power per unit area, or Irradiance.
A hypothetically perfect laser will suffer from diffraction and is referred to as being Diffraction Limited. But this is not what is actually limits most actual high powered lasers in warfare.
Most high powered lasers will never even come close to being diffraction limited.
Truth is, the Beam Waist, or the minimum diameter the beam will achieve, is a more effective measurement of how damaging a laser is. A perfect laser will have a beam waist limited only by diffraction, but lasers like that don’t exist. And the greater the power of a laser, the further and further away that laser strays from being diffraction limited.
A good way to measure this is with the Beam Quality of the laser, or with the M Squared. is the beam quality factor, which can be considered a multiplier of the beam waist. So, an of 5 means the beam waist is 5 times that of a diffraction limited beam. In terms of area, this means the beam is 25 () times the area of a diffraction limited beam, or 25 times as weak. As you can see, having a even in the high single digits will yield beams a far cry from “perfect” diffraction limited beams.
In practice, it is not the pumping efficiency, nor the power supply, nor diffraction, which ultimately limits lasers. It is the beam quality factor. In the end, ends up being the number one limit on laser damage in combat.
In small lasers, close to 1 is easily achieved without issue, but in high power lasers, can easily reach into the millions if not accounted for. This is because generally, scales linearly with laser power.
Each optical component of a laser affects the . In particular, using a deformable mirror to focus a laser at arbitrarily long ranges (such as from 1 km to 100 km) is measured at reducing to between 1.5 to 3. Problematic, but not exactly debilitating.
But the main issue is Thermal Lensing (Note that this is different from Thermal Blooming, which only occurs outside the laser in the presence of an atmosphere). The heating of a laser gain medium generates a thermal lens which defocuses the beam, ultimately widening the beam waist, preventing the beam from focusing properly. Also note that thermal lensing actually occurs in every single optical component of the laser, though it is strongest in the lasing medium.
Thermal lensing increases roughly linearly with input power. This means if you have 1 kW laser with a of 1.5 (which is reasonable), this means dumping 1 MW into that same laser will yield a of about 1500 (going the other way does not work, since can’t be less than 1).
One might try to predict the thermal conditions and add in an actual lens reversing the thermal lens. Unfortunately, the thermal lens is not a perfect lens either, and the imperfections of this lens remain the primary cause of beam quality reduction.
Fiber lasers are often touted as a solution to thermal lensing. They are considered immune to thermal lensing except in extreme cases. Unfortunately, dumping hundreds of megawatts through a fiber laser constitutes an extreme case, and fiber lasers suffer thermal lensing nearly as badly as standard solid state lasers.
The largest innovation for combating thermal lensing are negative thermal lenses. Most gain mediums have a positive thermo-optic coefficient, and this is what generates the thermal lens. Certain optical materials have a negative thermo-optic coefficient, which produces a thermal lens inverse of what the gain medium produces. Ideally, this negative thermal lens would perfectly reverse the positive thermal lens, but in practice, the still suffers.
In the end, the primary way to combat thermal lensing is with cooling. And the primary way to cool your laser is to make it bigger.
If the proportions of a laser are kept identical, lasers can be scaled up or down with minimal change to the laser’s efficiency or output power. Indeed, you can pump 100 MW or power into a tiny palm-sized laser just as well as you can into a building-sized laser, and they will produce roughly equal beams in terms of efficiency and . The only difference is that the palm-sized laser will melt into slag when you try to fire it.
Laser size is mostly a matter of how much do you need to distribute the heat of the laser pumping. And if you want to combat thermal lensing, you’ll want a really big laser. This means laser size is essentially about cooling, and by extension, having a low .
And because size is closely related to mass, and mass is so critical to spacecraft design, the limiting factor of using lasers in space is how poor of an you want to have, given a certain power level. Though the radiator mass needed for the enormous power supplies is the other major consideration.
A final way to combat thermal lensing is to use Beam Combining of many smaller lasers. Combining beams side by side increases the beam waist linearly, which defeats the point, but Filled Aperture Techniques can combine beams without increasing the beam waist. However, this technique produces greater inefficiency to the final beam. The ideal way to combine beams is to simply use multiple separate lasers which all focus on a single point.
In Children of a Dead Earth, either single large lasers or multiple small, separately focused lasers can be used, and both have varying pros and cons.
Of course, designing lasers in Children of a Dead Earth is often far more difficult than designing any other system, so there are plenty of factory-made options for players to use. But the option is always there for those who really want to explore the depths of laser construction!