The title sums up most of what I'm asking, but I'll give a bit of background. Recently I've been reading mortal engines (minor spoiler alert, so skip to the next paragraph if you'd like), and in the first book it basically revolves around an electricity based weapon.

I've always had an interest in more exotic forms of weaponry, and electricity have always caught my eye due to how interestingly they can be described and their possible effects. It also helps to get away from the typical railguns and lasers used in more mildly realistic space warfare, and hopefully provide more interesting combat. An interesting real life utilization essentially has a laser fire through the air creating a channel of plasma, which an electric current is then sent through to whatever it's being pointed at. But of course, this design needs oxygen and an atmosphere to have the plasma channel be created, so it doesn't work as well in space, which is a shame when it comes to a sci-fi scenario.

Which comes to the point of the question, is there any effective to send electricity through space at decent ranges?

I had a single idea of my own, which essentially revolves around creating an environment where a method that's used in real life like I listed above would work. This would be likely a weapon built on larger ships. It'd consist of the typical laser and the instrument to send the electric current in the center. Outside, of these, there'd likely be vents to blow out steam likely released by nuclear reactors powering the ship, and then outside of that, a series of lasers to essentially focus the steam on its path and stopping it from just expanding into the vacuum of space.

The major issues I see with this is the fact that a system might not work going through steam, or the method I said of utilizing lasers to focus it might not work. What I'm looking for in an answer is an alternative to what idea I proposed, an adjustment to the idea I proposed, or a blunt answer if it's impossible. Alternately, possible other ideas for more exotic but realistic weapons are welcome.

The weapon itself has very little guidelines, besides the following:

  1. Needs to utilize electricity as the main weapon factor

  2. Needs to be reasonably sized. This is in the sense that it would need to fit onto a spaceship the size of, say, a battleship. It also needs to be not ludicrously expensive, in the way that it couldn't use some material like antimatter.

  3. This one is obvious, but it needs to be able to work in space.

  4. needs to have some basic scientific or realistic basis. Stretching things such as making things smaller than they currently exist or using things are more theorized is fine, but using a fictional material isn't.

  5. It should also be assumed that electricity requirements aren't that much of an issue.

A disclaimer. Possible other exotic weapons that might be recommended don't need to fall within these guidelines, they're just for an electricity based weapon. I look forward to reading and responding to all your answers. Thanks!

Clarification: I am not looking for a method of shooting a charge of electricity through a vacuum, as I know a vacuum is a poor conductor. What I am looking for it a method of creating a medium to send a charge of electricity through.

  • $\begingroup$ Surprisingly, it turns out that shooting a beam of electrons through a vacuum is much easier than through air. That's why our old-school cathod ray tube television sets had a vacuum in their picture tubes; a that's how the glowing vacuum tubes work in nostalgic audio amplifiers. (And a question asking for how make something should at least say what that something is. What is this mysterious "electricity" the question is asking about?) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 8 at 6:24
  • $\begingroup$ Hmmmm. Lightning bolts from the Sun!!!!!! $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 14:08
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AlexP But that requires a HUGE potential difference between the poles. You somehow have to get 'the other side' to cooperate. $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ Creating a multi-thousand kilometer column of steam or any other gas that holds together long enough to be a lightning-style conduction channel for electricity seems rather implausible both because of thermal and vacuum dispersion. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that electrical conduction doesn't occur at lightspeed; lightning on Earth is 1/10 - 1/3 lightspeed based on a skim of sources. Plus, since there's no return channel or electrical ground in space, the ship launching the electricity is now equally positively charged, which is going to have all sorts of unwanted effects. $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Nephanth: That's essentially what an ion drive does. Except that since like charges repel, your beam disperses once it's in free space. That's why linear accelerators like SLAC have rows of powerful magnets along their length: to keep the charged particle beam together: www6.slac.stanford.edu/about/slac-overview $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jun 8 at 17:54

What I am looking for it a method of creating a medium to send a charge of electricity through.

You are looking at the space version of a taser or electric harpoon: shoot something connected to a conductive wire and once it has hit the target send a current through the wire.

It might work if you send two oppositely charged plates on the target, which release the charge once they hit the target. Sort of larger version of the hand shock prank. It would spare you from keeping a controlled distance between the attacker and the target.

Also, there is a good reason for not creating a conductive link between you and your target: the target can send back to you an opposite charge using the channel and the voltage difference you have built.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Technically, two oppositely charged plates aren't needed; the target object can serve as the ground. Send a highly negatively charged object and the charge will flow into the (uncharged) target, zapping it. There's limitations as to how charged an object can be before charge starts leaking away even a vacuum (see howeverythingworks.org/2011/03/31/question-1592 ) so it's doubtful how effective it would be. $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 6:07
  • $\begingroup$ I would rather fire whole battery arrays than to fire several kilometers long wire to another ship though. It seems quite a tough thing to do. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Jun 8 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ You mean like explosive bullets based on super-charged capacitors? $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 14:21

Unfortunatly for you it is fiction and handwavium

  • there could be more lengthy version of the answer, talking about conspiracies or maybe theories of mars zapping space(or be zapped) or may be even earth, or somethkng like that, look for "markings on mars are the product of Electrical Arcing" to start your dive in the territory, there was some sort of believable documentary on that topic as well

But, main problem is - whatever current you would like to induce on your enemy, you have to endure it as well, because you have to produce it, and it is way too easy to negate effects of such an attack, details how specifically may depend on the energies involved, specific ways of delivery etc but generally some sort of strategically placed/created(plasma cloud/jet as an example, conductive coatings etc) conductors, same principle as ligthning rods we use for similar purposes - let it flow where it does not harm. I mention counter measures not because you will be able to deliver some energy, but because it should be there anyway, as different solar winds do deliver charge and it standart problem for satelites.

Reason why space combats are not fun in fictional works is because they do not involve grandeuor of space, because both sides would not fit in one screen in a movie, primitive handwaviums, and illiteracy of authors on sciencific ways to subdue alien invasions(or killing your own teammates most likely humans vs humans), mostly because it is a complex and poorly researched topic which depends and changes with every subtle detail involved.

So closest alternatives still are some EM-nuke's and alike as warheads for some missile or kinetic projectiles of that kind, which negates that immaterial indestructible devastating beam of electricity concept.

On the other hand, try to consider real space combat tactics and ways - a gas cloud making pancake out of a space ship - looks perfectly fun to me (here is a ship magnificent beast of space, blink, here is magnificent space metall pancake) - and all kinetic means or point defendes are as useless as they could be against ligthning. So change your poison, reality is bigger than mediocre fantasy.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the input, but can you elaborate on the last part? About the gas cloud I mean. $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ @ZoTheCutestPirate It just plasma cloud from close proximity missile blast which had speed 100-1000km/s (missiles with fusion engines). There were few attempts on wb for hard hard constrained space battle scenatios or strategies. Here I tried to picture what fusion engine can do in solar system, this strategic locations $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 8 at 18:31
  • $\begingroup$ @ZoTheCutestPirate main problem is - things are very sensitive to details, and technolgies used. Hacking, diversion is probably underrated for space combat as well, but it is hard to tell anything about that side of things. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 8 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ 'close proximity missile blast' - to elaborate, it does not matter how you form that gas cloud, as long as it moves fast it deliver nuke power punch. It can be a canister slowly fuming gas, it can be plastic bag filled with air, or soap bubble, or dust particles, or a gentle blast few secons before colison, or a good blast few milliseconds before collision - as long as it moves fast it delivers , all over the ship surface $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 8 at 18:53

What is electricity? From wikipeda.

presence and motion of matter that has a property of electric charge.

So the question is how can electrons or ionized matter be moved through a vacuum.

The ionized matter/ plasma is trivial and happens all the time. Stars spew plasma/ionized particles by the tonne/second.


Taking a kilo of graphite mostly ionizing it to positive charge and throw that slug of plasma at target is technically electricity. Through the impact of the mass will probably have more effect then the electrical activity of the plasma. In other words this is essentially throwing a blob of static electricity.

Thermionic emission.

Probably a better fit to the question is thermionic emission. Heat a cathode to 1000K in vacuum and electron emission starts occurring. Which is the principle behind vacuum tubes. Vacuum tubes were a thing, they flowed electrical charge through a vacuum.

Problem with this as a weapon is you need to complete the circuit so it would be a challenge to get firing ship's business end to a significant enough voltage to break down the vacuum dielectric of space to conduct to the other ship. The vacuum dielectric is similar to air so something on the order of one million volts per meter. That would be prohibitively expensive ship to ship. More likely to arc from the business end to the opposite charge end on the weapon hosting ship, rather then to the enemy ship.

Methods exist

Methods exist to conduct electricity through vacuum. However they are not very efficient compared to weapon like a missile.

  • $\begingroup$ Vacuum isn't dielectric en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dielectric . It a problem to create electric potencial/field $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 9 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg permittivity vacuum is defined as 1. That is the strength of a dielectric is normalized to vacuum's strength as a dielectric. $\endgroup$ Jun 9 at 17:15
  • $\begingroup$ "It is the capability of an electric field to permeate a vacuum." en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuum_permittivity yes, it unobstructed electric field in vacuum, best case scenario. Nothing did rise your suspicion than there is nothing in the table under u link, nothing that is less than 1, eh? Vacuum is not a dielectric, it is not a conductor, it is not an insulator - it just space time thing (not exactly but) $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 9 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg a capacitor can be built that has conductive plates separated by a vacuum. The material that separates the plates is called the dielectric. In this case what is the dielectric material between the plates? $\endgroup$ Jun 9 at 22:20

I'm sorry, but you won't be sending lightning across space in order to fry your enemies. It's impractical, because electricity has a hard time working on long distances without a proper medium, and vacuum is one of the worst mediums.

If you must fry your opponents electrically, you could point a particle accelerator at your target. You are going to shoot electrons, protons, or their antimatter counterparts - which in the end of the day is a beam of electric charges. This is guaranteed to ruin someone's day if they cannot shield from it (like Mr. Bugorski, for example).

Alternatively, gather a lot of hot plasma and send it their way, like the Sun sometimes does to us. Whenever this happens a lot of systems on the surface and orbit of the Earth are disturbed, varying from minor nuisances such as people getting shocked from touching pipes to satellites going haywire for a moment.

  • $\begingroup$ This was something I knew, for the most part. Hence why the design I proposed for a possibility was essentially just creating a medium for the electrolaser design to work through. $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 3:58
  • $\begingroup$ Vacuum tubes looking at u - "vacuum is one of the worst mediums." Dielectrics are $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 8 at 4:00
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg those need to be hot in order to work, no? You can't just heat space in general. $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 7:04
  • $\begingroup$ No, hot there to make small cloud of free floating electrons to come out of a mettal(source of those electrons) and later manipulate it. There is no resistance for electrons to fly in vacuum or space. Solar wind is a plasma cloud where electrons and atoms fly trough space. Vacuum is almost ideal conductor for electrons, charged particles and heat, except it is not a conductor, it just absence of resistance for moving matter and EM emission. Create potencial betwen 2 points in space for a million km inbetween, will indeed require quite an effort, but because of distance, not because of vacuum $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 8 at 10:01

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