War periods are a time of many technological innovations, as potential hardship forces people to think more creatively and, of course, with the capital behind it. It was the same during the Second World War. One of these crazy projects was the solar gun.
The kind of weapon we are used to seeing in James Bond movies. This weapon is called the Sonnengewehr, or in Turkish, the Sun Gun! After Germany surrendered in May 1945, a lot of information came out.
This particular plan, that Hitler and German scientists had begun to develop a solar weapon, was published in a 1945 issue of Life magazine. According to the magazine, the plan was to use the sun’s rays to destroy US cities such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a satellite called the “space mirror”.
The logic of this weapon was essentially the same as the idea of lighting a fire by focusing the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass. Under normal conditions, sunlight carries a certain amount of energy. However, the rays reaching the earth are scattered, so when they fall on a piece of paper or any other flammable surface, they do not have the potential to burn. However, things change when you place a magnifying glass between the piece of paper and the rays coming towards it. This allows the rays to come closer together and converge at the focal point. This only works if you are going to burn a piece of paper.
How would the Sun Gun work?
The Sun Gun was based on an idea by German physicist Hermann Oberth. A legendary rocket scientist, Hermann Oberth came up with the idea of putting a mirror in space in 1923. But he planned to use it for peaceful purposes, such as illuminating harbors and thawing frozen rivers. But of course, when war broke out, this plan changed shape. The project now involved a giant concave mirror placed in Earth’s orbit to focus the sun’s rays and then reflect them to a desired target.
The idea was evaluated by the German Army Artillery Corps during World War II. The project would involve a space station orbiting the Earth. A mirror would be attached to this station, which would move and take the right position with the help of propellant rockets. At the end, it would focus on the target. With a weapon of this size, it would be possible to burn an entire city. We said from the beginning that it was crazy.
Why couldn’t this weapon be built?
Naturally, the project never got off the ground because, according to German scientists, it would have taken decades to perfect the technology needed. The biggest obstacle to such a plan was that there were no heavy rockets to carry the components into orbit.
Assuming there were, how practical would it be? Would such a weapon work? Later studies showed that space reflectors were possible. In 1993, Russian scientists even launched a project to use the sun’s rays to reflect solar energy back to Earth. A 20-meter diameter mirror called “Znamya” was fixed to the Russian space station Mir. Once in orbit, this giant mirror created an illuminated area 5 km in diameter on the Earth’s surface. After orbiting for a few hours, the Znamya satellite entered the atmosphere over Canada and burned up.
Building a Death Ray is actually not a new idea
On the other hand, it was not until World War II that scientists first thought of using the sun as a weapon of death. It is rumored that the Greek astronomer Archimedes managed to burn Roman ships using mirrors during the Siege of Syracuse in 214 – 212 BC.
But let us remind you in the meantime. Mythbusters, a popular program on the Discovery Channel, devoted three episodes to finding out whether a ship could be burned using only mirrors. Each time, however, the idea was dismissed as improbable.