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The Sonnengewehr, Or How the Nazis Tried to Build a Solar-Powered Death Star

Written by on Monday, June 18th, 2012

Space is unofficially a neutral zone. Sure, the governments of the world have filled orbital space with a cloud of spy satellites that are used for military purposes, but so far military organizations haven’t been launching weapons into space. Pulling off an orbital space weapon would be a technological nightmare, and it would provoke every other nation on earth.

That didn’t stop the Nazis from trying to figure out how to weaponize space. During World War II, German ingenuity and Nazi fanaticism combined to create some truly outlandish and devious weapons, but none were quite as ambitious as the Sonnengewehr, or sun gun. Like something straight out of the Old Testament, Nazi scientists seriously considered building a giant space station that would concentrate the rays of the sun into a beam of wrathful fire from the heavens.

Ever use a magnifying glass to fry ants as a kid? Yeah, it’s kind of like that, except that you replace the magnifying glass with a mile-long mirror and the ants with the citizens of New York.

The sun gun was the idea of German physicist Hermann Oberth, who is considered one of the founding fathers of rocket science. Oberth came up with the idea not as a weapon, but as an energy source. He envisioned a future wherein space stations would concentrate the rays of the sun to heat steam-powered turbines. Theoretically, this would provide an infinite source of energy.

When the Nazis buy antibiotics uk online found out about the idea, they tried to figure out how to turn it into a lethal city-destroying death ray akin to the Death Star from Star Wars. Dozens of Nazi scientists convened in Hillersleben, Germany to figure out the logistics of building such a terrible weapon. Their plan was to place a space station 5,100 miles above the surface of the Earth and equip it with a gigantic metallic sodium mirror that covered 3.5 square miles. According to their calculations, they figured that it could produce enough heat to boil an entire ocean or incinerate a city.

If the Germans had succeeded and managed to build their real-life Death Star, then Fat Man and Little Boy would have seemed like firecrackers by comparison.

There was just one problem getting in their way: physics. A simple law of optics makes it impossible to focus the sun’s rays into an single point over such a long distance. Because the sun is disc-shaped, any attempt to reflect the sun’s rays would also produce a disc-shaped beam. It’s hard to notice the disc when you’re frying ants on the sidewalk, but sure enough: it’s there. Put the magnifying glass 5,100 miles away from the Earth and the disc of light would be 40 miles across and too cool to cause any real damage. At most, it might give people an excuse to wear their sunglasses at night.

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