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In space battles, there are many missed shots.

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What happens to the lasers when they fly off into space? Do they eventually just fizzle out, or do they continue on forever? You would think that occasionally, something gets hit by a stray laser thousands of miles away.

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Somewhere in the X-Wing books it explains that they fizzle out after some distance, but I can't find the quote. – Hatandboots Feb 14 at 1:28
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Are you asking what would happen to real lasers, or what happens to Star Wars style "lasers" which move much slower than light speed and, according to Legends, were actually partly or wholly composed of plasma? – Hypnosifl Feb 14 at 1:28
    
@Hypnosifl Star Wars plasma lasers. Real lasers would just be a boring line of light :P – Josh B. Feb 14 at 1:29
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Not relevant to Star Wars of course, but the question immediately made me think of this. youtu.be/hLpgxry542M – Alarion Feb 14 at 7:07
    
@JoshB. You wouldn't even see a boring line of light - lasers would be invisible (and silent) except where they hit a target or when fired in a smoky/dusty environment. – RobertF May 10 at 13:11
up vote 19 down vote accepted

I will confine my answer to Star Wars, as you are using that tag, and the question would be too broad if applied to Science Fiction at large.

Ships in Star Wars are not firing actual lasers, they are firing blasters:

Lucasfilm defines the blaster as "ranged energized particle weaponry".

This indicates that a blaster is emitting physical matter.

Turning to now Legends sources:

Instead of firing a coherent beam of light like the archaic laser, the blaster fired a compressed, focused, high-energy particle-beam that was very destructive, commonly referred to as a "bolt."

As one can see in the films, these bolts move at speeds well short of light, as we can see the bolts moving, and ships at short range are sometimes able to dodge them. Logically, we may thus conclude that:

  1. Even if no other factors are limiting the range of a blaster bolt, the particles which comprise it will lose coherence as they collide with the interstellar medium, or the thicker matter present within a star system. The same will be true of any energy component in the bolt.
  2. Moving at less than light speed, the bolt will not be able to travel a meaningful distance before it looses the bulk of its destructive potential.
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That isn't what the word "ranged" means. – Kevin Krumwiede Feb 14 at 5:08
    
Good point. Fixed. – Politank-Z Feb 14 at 6:13
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The very fact that you can see them implies that they're losing energy (as light). To the extent that conventional physics apply, anyway. – Bob Feb 14 at 13:01
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The interstellar medium in real life is about 1 atom per cubic centimeter, if it's similar in Star Wars (and I have no idea if it is, maybe space is filled with some much denser aether-like medium and that's why we hear sounds in space) then that shouldn't have much effect on the bolts. I'd expect the main degrading effect would just be continual leakage of plasma particles since whatever confining force holds them together is unlikely to be perfectly efficient at preventing any from escaping the bolt. – Hypnosifl Feb 14 at 13:15
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"This indicates that a blaster is emitting physical matter." Actually it doesn't – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 14 at 16:33

While a laser beam has a very specific focal point (even if very far) after which it scatters proportionally to distance, the weapons in SW are actually using projectile-based (bolts), meaning that they are not designed with a focal point of maximum damage, but the self-contained energy in them will decrease over time.

As for differences in damage:

The Beam will do maximum damage at the focal point (d) and damage will be a little lower toward the source of the beam and toward 2xd (opposite of the source), and will continually decrease after 2xd range.

The Bolt will do maximum damage at it's barrel exit and damage will decrease over time as it's internal energy consumes.

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