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For the last year and change, the world has been enamored with The Mandalorian, due in no small part to the adorably plucky Grogu. But the young (relatively speaking) Baby Yoda isn't the only interesting element of the series. Recent episodes have had a particular focus on Mandalorian culture, revealing that not all Mandalorians have the same reverence for their armor as Din Djarin (our titular Mando played by Pedro Pascal). Still, the armor, made out of a special, super-strong material called beskar, aka Mandalorian iron, has some special significance, both culturally and as a means of practical protection.
In many episodes of the series — including last week's installment, "The Tragedy," beskar is seen to be capable of blocking a direct shot from a blaster. Handy, if you're a bounty hunter. But, are laser weapons even going to be a reality here on Earth rather than a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away? And if so, will we have the armor to block them?
LASERS AS WEAPONS
The first real-world laser appeared on the scene in 1960 and almost immediately entered the realm of science fiction. The notion of focusing light into discreet beams seems almost ready-made for the genre and inspired all manner of fictional weapons technologies, including laser guns, grid-like laser shields, and of course, the lightsaber.
While the laser was filling up pages and celluloid, it was also inspiring fantasies of real-world weapons as early as the 1970s. Project Excalibur, a project out of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, imagined an anti-missile weapon composed of an array of X-ray lasers huddled around an orbiting nuclear device. The central idea was that detonation of the nuke would create X-rays, which would then be focused toward targets, from space. The program was eventually shuttered but that wasn't the end of laser weapons.
In the 1980s, the Strategic Defense Initiative (also known, as fate would have it, as "Star Wars"), cooked up a whole array of defensive weapons meant to shoot down missiles before they could reach their targets. Among those plans: space-based lasers.
More recently, lasers weapons have made their way to the ground and enjoyed some success. Earlier this year, the Navy conducted a test using what is thought to be a 150-kilowatt laser to shoot a drone out of the sky.
Not to be outdone, the United States Army is planning a platoon of weapons utilizing 250 to 300-kilowatt lasers by 2024. If they're completed, they would be powerful enough to shoot down a cruise missile.
THE MOST POWERFUL LASERS
The race for the world's most powerful laser is on. There was a time, in 2012, when the most powerful laser in the world was housed at UT Austen. That laser had one petawatt of power. For context, a kilowatt is equal to 1000 watts. To get a petawatt, you have to add 12 more zeroes. It's so powerful that when it's fired (only for a fraction of a second at a time) it's brighter than the surface of the sun. That record has since been broken.
Inside the Shanghai Superintense Ultrafast Laser Facility, scientists are crafting lasers the likes of which would make the Empire sweat. Lasers more than five times as powerful as the UT Austen laser have been developed, and sights are set on a 100 petawatt laser by 2023.
These lasers, for their part, will not be used as weapons. Instead, they're aimed at understanding and exploring fundamental science. Still, while these incredibly powerful lasers are, for now, only in laboratories, we still have some highly impressive lasers available to the larger public.
Laser cutters are readily available on the consumer market and even stronger versions are used in manufacturing. In the below video, you can see a laser cutting through two inches of steel. Jump to about the 11-minute mark for the good stuff.
These lasers, however, require incredible infrastructure, making them ill-suited for the sort of weapons we see in the Star Wars universe. If you want something handheld, you're going to have to sacrifice power, though they're still pretty impressive.
Handheld lasers the average consumer can buy have limits to the amount of power they can output, but that's a legal limit with little bearing on what's possible. Styropyro, over on YouTube, retrofitted a blue laser array into an old radar gun to come up with the most powerful handheld laser ever made. At least that we know of. It put out over a hundred watts of power and, when focused through a lens, was capable of punching through a thin sheet of metal after a few seconds.
Considering the amount of time required, focused on a finite point, it's not the sort of laser power that would offer any real threat to Mando, but it's still impressive, especially when compared to lasers from just a couple of decades ago.
Today's laser technology, when provided with sufficient energy, or when focused on targets for sufficient time, are capable of shooting down drones and missiles, cutting through inches of steel, or lighting things aflame. The constraints are really a matter of size and energy consumption. So, it's ultimately irrelevant if you've got a suit made out of fictional Mandalorian iron. Laser weapon technology just isn't anywhere near developed enough that a gunslinger might need to worry about specialized defense. (But if you're going to be standing in front of an extremely powerful, stationary laser, whatever armor you're wearing might be a moot point, too.)
Today, we don't have the sorts of handheld lasers capable of being used as weapons like those in the Star Wars universe, but if technological advancements over the past several decades are an indicator, we just might before too long. This is the way.