A fascinating article tells of how a University of Washington professor claims off-the-shelf technology could generate plasma beams that a space shuttle or space station could use to clear all the space junk orbiting Earth that are so hazardous to space missions. But instead of vaporizing a piece of orbiting junk, the impact from the beam would push the object down into our atmosphere, where it would harmlessly vaporize.
Photo by BOY
This could serve as a more realistic description of space battles in novels. Sure, if you hit an enemy spaceship with something the size of a can of beans traveling an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, the resulting explosion would be larger than the biggest nuclear explosion man has ever made so far. But that takes really good aim.
A beam can be easily shifted around until it hits the target. This could deflect enemy missiles, if it wasn’t powerful enough to explode them. More to the point, such a beam could strike an enemy ship to divert its course, or even turn it topsy-turvy. This would make it extremely difficult for the enemy to maintain a coordinated attack.
Think of the scenes in Star Trek: TNG and later series. They would have the sound effect of an impact, the actors would all sway to the left, for instance, then right themselves. That motion is actually based on ships at sea, where they tend to right themselves after being tipped. But ships in space are not in water, so there would be no reason to expect the ship to automatically right itself. (I know that in Star Trek they have those magical inertial dampeners, but it’s a stretch to think they’re automatically setting everything right again.) The tendency of a ship in vacuum would be to keep tipping the same way, i.e., to rotate after being struck. If the impact caused severe deformation to the hull, some of the crew would be kept busy preventing possible atmospheric leaks.
The old Star Trek series had scenes with a closer approach to realism, because they sometimes showed crew members getting hurled from their seats. And I remember a scene in Voyager where the whole ship went end-over-end during a battle. Such dramatic action scenes that allow the crew to survive can now be written with realistic plasma beams involved, instead of being chalked up to force fields that repel immense forces, for which we have no scientific basis.