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  • As climate change, scarce resources, and ever-advancing military technology push the boundaries of

  • humans towards deadlier and protracted conflicts, they look to other domains to gain a competitive

  • edge.

  • With the world devastated by years of war and depleted of most of its natural resources,

  • the global powers have turned space into its final battlefront.

  • While these battles have not reached the point of firing lasers and other nifty space gadgets

  • like from an unnamed popular science fiction franchise, at this point in the future, due

  • in no small part to Dogecoin billionaires, outfitting large armies of space soldiers

  • has become possible.

  • While there are many possibilities for this war to be fought in space, let's look at the

  • first and most likely battlefield: the Moon.

  • However, before we can even begin to see how this battle would play out, we first need

  • to tackle the major question of if a gun can even be fired in space.

  • When you pull the trigger of any gun, a firing pin strikes the primer that ignites the powder

  • inside the cartridge.

  • These expanding gases force the bullet out of its casing and propel it down the barrel.

  • While there are quite literally hundreds of different powder combinations used throughout

  • the centuries, one of the basic physics principles that remains constant though is the ability

  • of the powders to combust.

  • For that to happen there must be air.

  • Now, I know what you are thinking- there is no air in space so you cannot fire a gun in

  • a vacuum.

  • But you see if you thought that you would be sorely mistaken.

  • Inside each cartridge, you would find that the tiny amount of oxygen contained in each

  • air-tight and self-contained cartridge would still allow the gun to be fired.

  • However, once you do fire that gun in space that is where the otherworldly physics starts

  • to take place.

  • Firstly, no matter where you fire a gun in space you would not hear it, since there is

  • not a medium like air or water for sound to travel.

  • However, you would still hear a small yet very altered sound due to the small vibrations

  • firing the gun would have in your ear drum.

  • But when other people shoot a gun, because the sound vibrations cannot travel, you would

  • not hear them so if you forget to bring that hearing protection with you on your spaceship

  • do not fear since it would not make a difference anyway.

  • Once the bullet leaves the barrel of the gun, gravity starts to take effect immediately.

  • That is why when you fire a bullet it will eventually drop to the ground.

  • However, on the moon, gravity is one-sixth the strength of the gravity on earth and this

  • would make for some very interesting dynamics.

  • Taking a look at three of the most common military cartridges, one can see how the ranges

  • at which firefights can take place in space become exponentially increased.

  • The standard-issue pistol round for the US is 9mm, the standard rifle round is 5.56 mm,

  • and the standard machine gun round is the 7.62mm cartridge.

  • These rounds will travel a maximum of 1900, 3400, and 4500 yards respectively.

  • While their effective ranges are much shorter than these, these are the maximum ranges that

  • when fired on a completely flat plain, gravity will eventually pull them down into the ground.

  • Because the moon's gravity is one-sixth the strength of the gravity on earth, that

  • means you could multiply these distances by a factor of almost 2.5 times greater!

  • So that means for a 9mm pistol, a space cadet could fire a 9mm bullet up to almost 4700

  • yards, snipe at an enemy with his rifle at almost 8300 yards, and suppress their positions

  • with machine-gun fire at 11000 yards!

  • Surely these numbers are all theoretical since the military, at least publically, has never

  • tested its weapons in space.

  • But if we are going off just the straight math then it should work out this way.

  • Of course, these numbers are just the maximum range and do not factor in things like the

  • ability to aim or the fact that the visible horizon for the human eye is around 11 nautical

  • miles or about 22000 yards, so shooting at a target over the horizon would be impractical

  • for the average space soldier.

  • Or would it be?

  • You see, space does some weird things and one of those is the pull of a gravitational

  • field.

  • Unlike on earth where the atmosphere is tens of thousands of meters up, if you are already

  • in space or on an astral body with a limited atmosphere like the moon, or a very strong

  • atmosphere like say, Jupiter, then bullets can easily get sucked into these atmospheres.

  • As one scientist described it, if you wanted to shoot yourself on the moon you would simply

  • need to stand on a mountain at least 1600 meters up and then fire straight ahead.

  • Now, granted the bullet would have to not impact any other mountains or debris but by

  • doing this the bullet could eventually circumnavigate the moon and come back to hit its hapless

  • shooter, eventually.

  • If you fired your gun while in the void of space, it also has some weird physics that

  • would go on.

  • One of those would be its ability to keep moving forever, at least sort of.

  • You see, as discussed previously space being a vacuum, if there were no forces such as

  • gravity, wind, or weather that could impact a bullet's path and sap its energy, it would

  • go on forever.

  • In an ideal scenario, this would be the case.

  • However, the likelihood of your bullet traveling forever in the cosmos with no other forces

  • acting on it would be next to nothing due to all the planetary bodies acting on it.

  • Going back to our earlier example of firing a gun at a planet, if during your lunar firefight

  • you happen to miss your target and the bullet eventually makes its way towards say, Jupiter,

  • you could count on its strong gravitational pull to suck in your bullet.

  • At about three times the strength of the earth's gravitational pull, you could expect that

  • even at distances up to tens of thousands of meters away the bullet would feel the effect

  • of its gravity and eventually get sucked into orbit.

  • Here, after getting trapped in orbit, the bullet could expect to travel at speeds of

  • more than 17000 miles per hour!

  • That is because the speed of objects in orbit is dependent upon their mass, gravity, and

  • altitude among a few other factors.

  • While this would change from planet to planet, one would see the velocities of these bullets

  • increase in magnitudes of ten or more when placed in such scenarios.

  • Another interesting aspect of firing guns in space is just how hot or how cold they

  • would be when impacting a target.

  • On earth, heat is transferred through a variety of radiation, convection, and conduction,

  • which gives bullets, though hot, a more graduated temperature to its environment than space.

  • In space, heat only exists as radiation.

  • So if your bullet travels through say a patch of solar wind, it would instantly be melted

  • since the melting point of lead is around 320 degrees Celsius while solar wind can reach

  • temperatures of a million degrees Celsius!

  • However, all of these data points and figures revolve around firearms that are currently

  • used on Earth that are repurposed for space use.

  • After all, if the human race were ever to fight a war in space then it is probably safe

  • to assume that the gun designs would also have to be upgraded.

  • But what exactly would the ideal gun in space look like and be made out of to operate in

  • such a harsh environment?

  • First of all, that space assault rifle or pistol with wooden grips would probably best

  • be left back at home.

  • The obvious reason for this is that you should not bring highly flammable things into space

  • as due to the intense amount of heat that can be present, a material like wood would

  • instantly catch on fire if exposed to such extreme temperatures.

  • Additionally, the water inside wood would expand and evaporate inside a vacuum.

  • What that means for our hapless space warrior is that potentially in the middle of the action

  • their gun could literally start falling apart with the screws and anything else banding

  • the stock to the gun coming apart.

  • But what about the material that makes up the gun itself?

  • Though many people might suggest Tungsten, as it has the highest melting point of any

  • naturally occurring metal yet is still malleable enough to be bent into shape, you might be

  • mistaken.

  • Rhenium is probably the best metal to make guns out of that would fire in space for a

  • few reasons.

  • Firstly, it is still the second highest heat resistant metal known to humankind.

  • It also has strong electrical resistance properties in space, which is great since everything

  • that goes into space has to be able to dissipate electrostatic charges that are everywhere

  • up there.

  • It is commonly used in the construction of aircraft so it already has a good track record

  • of good performance in harsh environments.

  • Though people might point out that Tungsten has also been used in a number of high speed

  • and highly successful jet aircraft programs in both the US, Russia, and elsewhere, they

  • would be correct.

  • However, though Tungsten does have a slight edge over Rhenium in melting point, the metal

  • still beats it out in areas of ductility, electrical resistance, and creep resistance.

  • Despite these advantages, Rhenium is usually combined with Tungsten to make an alloy to

  • get the best properties of both and it is this combination that might actually make

  • the best material to manufacture firearms out of for space combat.

  • But what about the bullets that are fired?

  • After all, these bullets would have to survive their flight to their target through potentially

  • much more extreme temperatures and conditions due to the increased distances that space

  • combat can occur at.

  • The answer to this problem might actually be an experimental alloy that was designed

  • in 2015 that, to this date, has the highest melting point of any experimental or natural

  • substance discovered so far.

  • The alloy that was created was a combination of three elements: hafnium, tantalum, and

  • carbon.

  • The resulting concoction allowed for a blistering melting point of about 7500 degrees Fahrenheit

  • or about two-thirds the surface temperature of the sun!

  • Such a metal would be perfect to use for space combat since they could handle almost everything

  • space could throw at them save for maybe solar wind and a black hole.

  • Though this experimental alloy is still being developed at the University of California,

  • there is real hope that it could be used in military applications in the future since

  • a good portion of the funding for this research has come from the US Navy.

  • Despite this influx of cash from Uncle Sam, the last report from 2015 was that scientists

  • were only able to make 100 grams of the material so it is unlikely such bullets would be available

  • anytime soon.

  • Overall, while firing guns in space might seem like a commander's dream with the increased

  • ranges and zero noise, when one factors in all the harsh realities of space, firing guns

  • might not be as simple as one might think.

  • But who knows, maybe by the time humans actually start fighting space battles guns might be

  • obsolete anyways!

As climate change, scarce resources, and ever-advancing military technology push the boundaries of

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What Happens If You Fire a Gun in Space?

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    Summer posted on 2021/09/14
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