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Phasers

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to explore various aspects of phaser weapons seen in the Star Trek universe. Essentially, I'm going to do a general walk-through of the amazing device that is the Federation phaser. Many of the ideas within this article are my own, but the denizens of RAST both acted as an excellent sounding board and contributed a great deal of refinement to my own thoughts, so thanks as usual for that. Most especially thanks go to Timo Saloniemi, who helped me develop ideas concerning how phasers do what they do, to Guardian 2000 who pointed out an interesting scene in "The Enemy Within", and once again to Mike Dicenso, a long time friend of the site who this time pointed out the TNG TM mistake concerning the number of array emitter elements on a Galaxy class ship and helped me with source info for working out a better number.

Types

In TOS there were three types of phaser weapon seen. The first was a rifle which Kirk carried in the second pilot episode, 'Where No Man Has Gone Before'. Spock has this weapon beamed down to the planet that Gary Mitchell is being held prisoner on. The rifle is probably a very early version of a phaser - Pike's crew were using laser pistols less than a decade before. The weapon is of a very curious design - at the front it has a very slender-looking barrel that looks like it would break very easily. At the back is a rather uncomfortable-looking stock, and between the two is a set of three cylinders. As you can see in this image, the topmost of the cylinders is directly in line with the barrel

After Mitchell escapes, Kirk wakes up and gives a few orders to a crewman. He then picks up the rifle and does a strange thing - he grabs hold of the cylinders and rotates them, bringing a different cylinder into line with the barrel. More on potential meaning of this later.

This is the only time we ever saw this weapon used. During the rest of TOS we saw only two phaser weapons :

The above weapon was dubbed 'Phaser One'. It was 107.2 mm long (Source : Star Fleet Technical Manual by F. Joseph).

This weapon was called 'Phaser Two'. It was long assumed in Trek fandom that a Phaser Two was a Phaser One clipped into some kind of holder, with a handgrip beneath. It was also thought that there was no canonical proof of this, but in fact we actually get to see Sulu clipping a Phaser One into the pistol grip in order to heat some rocks in the TOS episode "The Enemy Within". The pistol weapon was 221 mm long (Source : Star Fleet Technical Manual by F. Joseph). The episode 'The Devil in the Dark' establishes the terms Phaser one and Phaser Two canonically, and establishes through dialogue that Phaser One is 'far less powerful' than Phaser Two, so the handgrip does not serve simply as a more ergonomic way to hold the weapon - rather it appears to take the output of the small unit and boost it to a higher power rating.

These descriptions were slightly modified for The Next Generation. In this series the phasers are very similar to those above :

The above is what the TNG Technical Manual calls the 'Type I Phaser'. I have seen one of the actual props used on the show for this weapon - I couldn't measure it, but it was about 70 mm long. The book 'The Art of Star Trek' describes it as 'less than three inches long' on page 104. This is so small that it's actually quite hard to see the weapon when it is used onscreen, and as a result the Type I is rarely seen in TNG. Yar uses one in 'Symbiosis' and Riker uses one in "Hide and Q", though.

This is one of several different versions of the Type II phaser seen through TNG, DS9 and Voyager. Roddenberry apparently wanted the TNG phasers to look less like weapons and more like tools. As a result the weapon is not terribly ergonomic, and actors often have difficulty aiming it properly. More on that later. Unlike the TOS Phaser One/Phaser Two combination, this is apparently a completely separate weapon from the Type I.

This is the Type III phaser rifle, seen in several TNG episodes and also on DS9. The front section closely resembles one of the later versions of the Type II, and it seems possible that the TNG rifle is an enlarged version of the Type II in much the same way that TOS Phaser Two was associated with Phaser One.

In the TNG episode 'The Outcast' the Enterprise-D crew fitted some Type IV phasers to a Federation shuttle craft. The TNG Technical Manual also claims that the phaser arrays of the Galaxy Class are Type X, and that starbases are fitted with 'Type X+' weapons. The DS9 Technical Manual claims that Type VII, VIII and IX weapons are in use on various Federation starship types. Although care must obviously be taken with non-canon sources, there is no real controversy about these numbers.

One slightly more controversial data point is for the Sovereign class Starship. A poster showing a cutaway drawing of the Sovereign labeled its phasers as 'Type XII'. This is the only source which makes this claim, and a poster really should be regarded as a pretty shaky foundation to rest such a claim on. Nevertheless, like the numbers in the DS9 TM there is really nothing as yet to contradict the number, and it is a figure I have used for the Sovereign entry on this site. Indeed, my assumption is that the 'Type X+' weapon mentioned in the TNG TM is in fact the Type XI, and that this was then redesigned for use aboard ship as the Type XII.

The real question here is what exactly does a Type number mean? There are several possibilities. For instance, the term could refer only to the form of weapon used. Much as any computer that sits on a desk is called a 'desktop' and smaller versions are called 'laptops' and now even 'palmtops', maybe Type I is short for 'palm weapon', etc. :

Type Description
Type I Palm held weapon.
Type II Pistol.
Type III Rifle.
Type IV Large infantry / small vehicle weapon.
Type VII Starship weapon.
Type VIII Heavier Starship weapon.
Type IX Even heavier Starship weapon.
Type X Heavy phaser used on large ships.
Type XI Possible real designation of 'Type X+'
Type XII Really heavy weapon. Possible ship borne version of 'Type X+'
Type X+ Starbase / planetary defence phaser

Although this system works well at the low end, things rapidly start to become a bit silly at the top. For instance, under this system the phaser Type number does not relate at all to the power of the weapon. But if this is so, then what is the point of using the term 'Type X+'? Simply calling it a Type XI or XII or XV or whatever would tell the enemy nothing if the Type number just meant 'Starbase defence weapon'. Additionally, if the GCS's Type X means something like 'Weapon used on big ships', then why does the Sovereign array need to be called a Type XII? Even if it is bigger and more powerful than a Type X as used on a Galaxy, isn't it still a 'weapon used on big ships'? Think of the computer names analogy I used earlier - no matter how much faster or more powerful new computers get, a desktop PC is still a desktop, not a 'Desktop plus'.

The implication seems to be that the Type number is somehow related to the power output of the weapon. Now in the following example I am going to list some phaser power figures. I know that the output of a phaser array is a hotly debated topic in some areas, so let me say that these figures are examples only, intended to illustrate the system. Remember that - THESE NUMBERS ARE MADE UP EXAMPLES ONLY.

Type Description
Type I 10 kilowatt output
Type II 100 kilowatt output
Type III 1 Megawatt output
Type IV 10 Megawatt output
Type V 100 Megawatt output
Type VI 1 Gigawatt output
Type VII 10 Gigawatt output
Type VIII 100 Gigawatt output
Type IX 1 Terawatt output
Type X 10 Terawatt output
Type XI 100 Terawatt output
Type XII 1000 Terawatt output
Type X+ Classified

So, under this type of system we remove some of the previous nits. Now it makes sense that the Type X+ has a classified Type number, because revealing that number would reveal the precise power output of the weapon to enemies. And as ships get more advanced and their weapons more powerful, it would make more sense that they would have higher Type numbers.

Unfortunately we introduce brand new nits, this time at the bottom end of the scale. If a Type I phaser has a certain output power (and let's just say one more time for the record that the above figures are made up examples to illustrate the point), then this would mean that the TOS Type I and II would be exactly the same power level as the TNG Type I and II. This isn't terribly realistic; once the scale is set up, we should really expect that the size of a weapon of a given power would shrink as technology advanced. So that the weapon that is classified as a Type I in the TNG era would count as a Type II or III in the TOS era, and so on.

So it seems that either example comes with penalties. I would suggest a compromise system - make each type represent not a single power figure but a band of possible outputs, like this :

Type Description
Type I 1 - 10 kilowatt output
Type II 10 - 100 kilowatt output
Type III 100 - 1000 kilowatt output
Type IV 1 - 10 Megawatt output
Type V 10 - 100 Megawatt output
Type VI 100 - 1000 Megawatt output
Type VII 1 - 10 Gigawatt output
Type VIII 10 - 100 Gigawatt output
Type IX 100 - 1000 Gigawatt output
Type X 1 - 10 Terawatt output
Type XI 10 - 100 Terawatt output
Type XII 100 - 1000 Terawatt output
Type X+ Classified

Do I need to say it again? Yes, these numbers are only made up to illustrate the system. Even the idea that the bands go up in multiples of ten is purely speculation.

Now the great thing about this idea is that it solves all the above problems. A TNG Type I can now be more powerful than a TOS Type I, but it still makes sense for them to have the same designation. Meanwhile at the top end we would expect the weapons carried by small ships to be of a lower type than those carried by the big ones, which matches what the DS9 TM claims. We would also expect the more advanced ships to have higher Type numbers than the less advanced ones, which fits with the idea that the Sovereign has Type XII arrays compared to the Galaxy Type X. Finally, it makes sense that the Type X+'s true number is classified, to keep the enemy guessing as to how powerful they are.

Enterprise

The latest Star Trek series, 'Enterprise', is set in 2151, about 100 years before Kirk's adventures in the original series. It features the crew of the first Human starship capable of reaching warp 5 and so exploring space beyond a few light years from Earth. The crew of this "NX" class Enterprise carry weapons called "phase pistols" and the ship is fitted with "phase cannon" which are, on the face of it, identical to the phasers used in TOS and beyond. The weapons fire a glowing beam much like the phaser, they can be set to stun or kill like a phaser.

Unfortunately, this causes a contradiction with the TNG episode 'A Matter of Time'. In this episode a man named Rasmussen visits the Enterprise-D, claiming to be a time traveler from the future. At one point he chats with Riker, Crusher and Worf about how different people view history in different ways and to illustrate the point asks what they think the most significant invention of the last hundred years was. Worf replies that it was phasers; 'There were no phasers in the 22nd century', he states.

There are numerous possible explanations. It's conceivable that Worf said this as some sort of test of Rasmussen. The time traveler turned out to be a 22nd century con man who had stolen a time machine from a real time traveler and gone to the future to steal advanced technology. If Worf suspected this, he might have lied to see if Rasmussen spotted it. But this is unlikely because Rasmussen continues to fool the crew for some time until he is revealed as a fake at the end of the episode. Worf could have got his dates wrong, but again this is unlikely - Worf is very into both history and weaponry, and it seems improbable that he would make such a mistake. It's possible that Worf was being not quite literal - maybe he thought of 22nd century phase pistols as being so primitive that they were not true phasers. Again, though, this seems a bit unlikely.

Taking the canon strictly at face value, Worf's statement would mean that the phase weapons of Enterprise are not actually phasers at all. Perhaps they are some primitive forerunner of the modern phaser, much as the flintlock was a forerunner to the modern machine gun. This would be my personal preference - I generally tend toward ideas that take canon statements at face value to the maximum sensible degree (and yes, that is a subjective judgment). Or we could just say that this was a writer's mistake, that the Enterprise writers messed up again either accidentally or deliberately, shrug our shoulders and pretend that Worf really said 21st century instead of 22nd. How acceptable you find that is also a subjective matter.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, Worf's quote does mean that we should be careful in including phase pistols and cannon in any discussion of phaser effects or capabilities.

Effects

Somewhat strangely, phasers are capable of doing various different things. For the next part of the article I'm going to list and discuss each of the observed properties of phasers.

Stun :

Phasers can be set to stun a person - the phrase "phasers on stun" is a well known one, and has been used countless times in the series. Here's an example from TOS :

There are various levels of stun setting, usually referred to as light, medium, and heavy. A light stun seems to do little more than a punch - in TNG's "Symbiosis" Yar stuns two fighting aliens with a Type I phaser to separate them. Perhaps the aliens were just highly resistant to phaser fire; we know this is possible because Danar in "The Hunted" took multiple stun-level hits without adverse effects. However, we see O'Brien hit with a phaser on stun in the same episode and while it knocks him down and makes him a little woozy, it doesn't render him unconscious. In the TOS episode "The Man Trap" the Human Professor Crater is hit by a phaser on stun with similar effects.

On higher settings, stun generally renders somebody unconscious for a period of some minutes - the time seems to depend on the health of the person and the part of the body hit, which makes good sense.

A phaser stun at point blank range can cause localised skin damage akin to a fairly severe burn, and if this is done to the head such a shot is generally fatal to Humans. This is the method Valeris used to kill the two assasins, Burke and Samno, on the Enterprise-A in "Star Trek VI : The Undiscovered Country". Apparently this method is not certain, because Valeris was later fooled into thinking that the two men were alive.

Ship-level phasers are capable of firing on stun settings, at least on occasion. In 'A Piece of the Action', for instance, Kirk is observing a gun battle outside the building he is in. Deciding to impress a local crime lord, he calls the ship :

Kirk : "Scotty, put the ship's phasers on stun. Fire a burst in a one block radius around these co-ordinates."
Scotty :
'Right away sir. Scott out.'

The necessary modifications take a matter of seconds, so Scotty could have done nothing more than push a couple of buttons. The shot renders every person in the street unconscious - the beams blanket a large area with one single burst :

We'll talk more about such wide angle firing later. This is the only occasion on which a ship's weapons have been used in this way, though there have been numerous occasions when such an ability could be useful. So it seems that shipborne phasers lost this capability some time after this episode.

Heat :

Phasers can also heat things up. The episodes 'The Enemy Within', 'A Private Little War', 'Spock's Brain', 'Silicon Avatar' and others have all shown Starfleet officers using phasers to heat up rocks until they glowed red, in order to provide a source of heat and/or light. Here's McCoy doing it in 'A Private Little War':

And here's Neelix and Paris warming some rocks up in 'Parturition' :

In 'That Which Survives', Kirk gives us some idea of the kind of heat a phaser blast can generate. In the episode the crew are stranded on a planet; one of the crewmen is killed by a mysterious woman, and Kirk attempts to use his phaser to dig a grave in the rock nearby. The three second long blast has little effect.

Sulu :
'That's the same red rock.'
Kirk :
'My phaser didn't cut through it.'
McCoy :
'Whatever it is it has a mighty high melting point.'
Kirk :
'Eight thousand degrees centigrade. It looks like igneous rock, but infinitely denser.'

Kirk is probably making a rough estimate here - he doesn't know much about the rock and he doesn't scan it with his tricorder to determine the temperature, so he can't really know that the phaser heated it to eight thousand degrees. But as an experienced Starfleet officer Kirk should have a pretty good idea of what a phaser blast should do to a chunk of rock, so we can be fairly confident that a few seconds worth of phaser fire can heat a normal rock to about eight thousand degrees centigrade. This would be more than enough to vaporise any rock we know of.

More evidence comes from TNG's 'The Vengeance Factor'. In this episode our heroes are hiding behind a pile of "nuranium" scrap metal during a firefight with some outlaws. The following dialogue is heard :

Riker :
'Data, tell me about nuranium. It vaporises at?'
Data :
'Two thousand three hundred and fourteen degrees sir. Of course, nuranium carbi-'
Riker :
'Thank you Data.'
Geordi :
'Setting seven ought to do it.'

Worf then fires to distract the outlaws and Geordi, Riker and Data fire into the metal. After approximately two seconds a large amount of white gas begins to be released, and our heroes use this to lay an ambush for the outlaws. Again, this indicates that phasers can heat objects up to temperatures in the thousands of degrees.

Energy or Particles?

In 'Star Trek : First Contact', the Borg invade and occupy portions of the Enterprise-E. Picard wants to mount mission to retake the ship, but has one worry about engineering :

Picard : "The problem is, if we begin firing particle weapons in engineering there's risk that we may hit the warp core. I believe our goal should be to puncture one of the plasma coolant tanks."

This establishes that phasers are not energy weapons, but rather fire particle beams. Or are they? In "Best of Both Worlds, Part I" the Borg abduct captain Picard from the E-D. The crew make two attempts to rescue him - during the first, Worf declares the following as he enters the transporter room :

Worf : "These phasers have been retuned. Each has a different frequency spanning the upper end of the EM band."

So although we have already seen that phasers are particle weapons, they also have frequencies just like an EM weapon. Confusing, isn't it?

Firing Nanoprobes :

Another Voyager episode, 'In the Flesh', gives us another strange property of phasers. Chakotay is about to go aboard a Species 8472 space station, and Kim is issuing him with the equipment he will need. This includes the following :

Kim : "Type one phaser, modified to fire Borg nanoprobes."

The nanoprobes are the only thing Voyager has which can damage an 8472; they are machines which live within the body of Borg drones, minute but still solid physical objects. For a phaser to be able to fire a beam of them is rather odd, to put it mildly.

Vapourisation :

So we know that phasers can stun a person, and that they can output significant heat. Yet when phasers are fired on higher settings, the target glows and then fades from view. It doesn't seem to be vaporising as such, because usually little if any actual vapour is seen to be produced. Here's Captain Terrel vapourising himself in 'Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan' :


It's quite fortunate that phasers behave this way - standing next to a person that was being converted into vapour over a period of a few seconds would be pretty damaging to your health.

'Obsession' establishes a possible explanation. Whilst leading a landing party, Kirk smells something that reminds him of a long ago incident involving a dangerous alien. He orders some of his redshirts to search the area :

Kirk :
'Take your men. Take a swing around our perimeter. Scan for dichronium in the atmosphere. Set your phasers on disrupter beam. If you see any gaseous cloud, fire immediately.'

Unsurprisingly, the redshirts don't fare too well against the creature. Later, Kirk orders another redshirt to assemble a team to beam down to the planet. His orders are as follows :

Kirk :
"I want four men armed with phaser two set for disrupter effect. Join me in the transporter room in five minutes. You'll accompany me to the planet's surface."

In the initial case, the redshirts take their phasers from their belts and make a small adjustment to one of the controls - nobody has to open the casing up and fiddle with the insides or anything. These are the only examples I know of in which there is any canonical statement that phasers can be used to 'disrupt' matter. That Kirk had to order the weapons specifically set for this effect indicates that it is not actually part of a normal stun or kill level phaser beam.

While there is no canonical example phasers being used as 'disrupters' outside of 'Obsession', there is some non-canon material on the subject. Here is what the TNG Tech Manual has to say in its introduction on phasers :

'Even before the development of true interstellar space-craft by various cultures, it was clear that directed-energy devices would be necessary to assist in clearing gas, dust, and micrometeoroid material from vehicle flight paths. Emerging space-faring races are continuing to employ this method as an excellent maximiser of shipboard energy budgets, because a relatively small energy expenditure produces a large result. Material in space can be vaporised, ionized, and eliminated as a hazard to spaceflight. It did not take an enormous leap of imagination, of course, to realize that directed energy could also prove to be an effective weapon system.

The lead defensive system maintained by Starfleet Command for sublight use for the last century is the phaser, the common term for a complicated energy release process developed to replace pure EM devices such as the laser, and particle beam accelerators. Phaser is something of a hold-over acronym, PHASed Energy Rectification, referring to the original process by which stored or supplied energy entering the phaser system was converted to another form for release toward a target, without the need for an intermediate energy transformation. This remains essentially true in the current phaser effect.

Phaser energy is released through the application of the rapid nadion effect (RNE). Rapid nadions are short-lived subatomic particles possessing special properties related to high-speed interactions within atomic nuclei. Among these properties is the ability to liberate and transfer strong nuclear forces within a particular class of superconducting crystals known as fushigi-no-umi. The crystals were so named when it appeared to researchers at Starfleets Tokyo R&D facility that the materials being developed represented a virtual 'sea of wonder' before them.'

Some have taken this to mean that the phaser actually fires a beam of nadion particles which 'liberate the strong nuclear force' within the target, thus causing it to be reduced to its component subatomic particles, but in fact the text does not really support this. Nadions are described as liberating and transferring the strong nuclear force only within the special crystals of the phaser itself as part of the process which releases phaser energy; the text says nothing about what form that energy is in.

Later, the TM gives a detailed description of the effects of each of the sixteen settings which Type II and III phasers are capable of. For each setting the book lists various figures and gives a brief description of the actual effects. I've reproduced the numbers here, and added a column which calculates the discharge power by dividing the energy by the time :

Setting SEM:NDF
Ratio
Damage
Index
Discharge
Energy
Discharge
Time
Power
(Energy/Time)
1
'Not applicable' 0 15.75 0.25 63.00
2
'Not applicable' 0 45.3 0.75 60.40
3
'Not applicable' 1 160.65 1.025 156.73
4
'Not applicable' 3.5 515.75 1.5 343.83
5
250 : 1 7 857.5 1.5 571.67
6
90 : 1 15 2,700 1.75 1,542.86
7
1 : 1 50 4,900 1.75 2,800.00
8
1 : 3 120 15,000 1.75 8,571.43
9
1 : 7 300 65,000 1.5 43,333.33
10
1 : 9 450 125,000 1.3 96,153.85
11
1 : 11 670 300,000 0.78 384,615.38
12
1 : 14 940 540,000 0.82 658,536.59
13
1 : 18 1,100 720,000 0.82 878,048.78
14
1 : 20 1,430 930,000 0.75 1,240,000.00
15
1 : 25 1,850 1.17x106 0.32 3,656,250.00
16
1 : 40 2,450 1.55x106 0.28 5,535,714.29

It's easy to see that the data is all over the place, with no discernible pattern in any of the columns. The discharge time, for instance, starts low, shoots up, stabilises at 1.75 seconds, drops again, stabilises again, then drops once more. Although SEM:NDF ratio shows an overall trend of decreasing, it drops massively in settings 5 - 7, then much more slowly, then more sharply again.

As seen, the idea of 'nuclear disruption' is mentioned earlier in relation to processes which take place within the actual phaser itself, but the descriptions of phaser effects in the TM also have interesting tit bits. The description of setting 8 reads 'cascading disruption forces cause humanoid organisms to vaporise, as 50% of the affected matter transitions out of the continuum.' This indicates that some form of disrupter effect is indeed at work within the target.

It is somewhat difficult to believe that phasers actually break all or most of the atoms of a target into subatomic particles. One of the strange facts about nuclear physics is that when you measure the mass of an atomic nucleus, you find that the nucleus as a whole masses less than all the particles within it mass separately - like having ten balls which mass a kilo each, but mass nine kilos when all ten are weighed together! If you want to break a nucleus apart into separate nuclei, you must supply enough energy to make up this 'mass defect'.

To do this for one single kilogram of water would require supplying over 650 TeraJoules - since water is a major component of the Human body, reducing a person to subatomic particles would take tens of thousands of terajoules. So if phasers do indeed disrupt atomic nuclei - and remember that all the stuff from the TNG TM is non canon - they either have a truly immense power output, or they do it by some process as yet unknown.

If standing near to somebody who is being vaporised is unwise, standing near to a person who is having every atom in his body reduced to subatomic particles would be positively insane. The shower of neutrons alone would be immensely damaging, like the mother of all radiation bursts.

The same quote also contains another new term, 'the affected matter transitions out of the continuum'. The implication here seems to be that the phaser actually sends the target into some kind of parallel universe or something. This could be a separate effect from the nuclear disruption, or continuum transitioning could be the unknown mechanism which allows nuclear disruption to take place without inputting the massive amounts of energy normal physics would imply. We just don't know.

So we are now up to as many as four effects that phasers have - stun, heating, nuclear disruption, and continuum transitioning.

This is something I've never liked about phasers - a rifle fires bullets, and only bullets. You don't expect a rifle to be able to act as a flame-thrower, or shoot laser beams or poison gas! Yet phasers do at least three or four very different things, all from one weapon. It's a little unbelievable.

I did wonder if phaser energy or particles could maybe act a little like electromagnetic radiation - after all, X-rays and radio waves are fundamentally the same thing, but as a practical matter they act in different ways because they have such radically different wavelengths and energies. Maybe phaser particles act in one way as a certain power level or frequency or whatever, and as that is changed the effects change. But this just doesn't seem right - X-rays and radio waves do actually behave the same way, just on a different scale, but phasers have largely different effects on identical objects, just at the push of a button.

Then I had a little moment of inspiration. After all, rifles can do other things than fire bullets - you can fit bayonets, rifle grenades, grenade launchers, or even strap a flame-thrower to the side a la Ellen Ripley in 'Aliens'. What if phasers can do different things because they are entirely different weapons built into one casing? What if a phaser is a stun gun and a heat ray and a disrupter and a continuum transitioner?

This solves several of our problems. For instance, remember how arbitrary the numbers of the Type II phaser seemed? I suggested that this was because the writer had chosen numbers which fitted whatever he wanted the weapon to do at that particular setting, rather than following any kind of mathematical progression. Well, if the different effects of a phaser are because there are different weapons inside firing an entirely arbitrary mixture of beams, then this is just what we would expect - the makers of the weapon would have picked out whatever combination of beams gave them the desired result, just as a present day gun enthusiast might use different calibers, cartridge charges, barrel lengths, etc., in order to get just the effect they want.

And remember how easily Kirk and his people adjusted their weapons to disrupter settings? This would suggest that it is easy to arbitrarily alter the beam effects, which would fit well with the idea that one or more of the parts of the beam could just be turned off at will. Remember how Picard said that phasers are particle weapons but Worf talked about EM frequencies? This surely suggests that phasers may have both EM radiation and particle beam elements to them.

It would also explain why TOS ships could fire stun beams while TNG ships apparently cannot - the TNG designers could have removed the 'stunner' part of the system to give room for larger and more powerful heat, disruption and transitioning elements.

You could even go some way towards explaining the improbable ability to fire solid objects like Borg nanoprobes. Modifying a phaser to do this could involve removing one of the components - the stun section, say - and adding something that could inject nanoprobes into the beam.

Finally, remember the original Phaser rifle that Kirk had? Remember how it had three tubes which could be rotated into place behind the barrel? This was an early phaser, after all, in service less than a decade after Pike's crew were using hand lasers. Perhaps Starfleet was just trying out different ways to combine weapons, and in this version you could only fire one beam at a time - one tube for stun, one for heat, one for disruption or continuum transitioning effects?

Speculative, indeed, but this idea does clear up a lot of little oddities and leaves us with a nice neat theory on how phasers do most of the things they do.

After some discussion of this idea with others, several possible refinements have been suggested. For instance, having three or four completely separate weapons seems a little cumbersome; another possibility is that there are several different kinds of phaser crystals which produce different kinds of particle beam. Kirk's rifle might then have just rotated different emitter crystals into place, while later models might have a small group of crystals arranged in a cluster or even layered together. To get the beam you want you just use a different part of the cluster, or a different layer of your crystal.

Alternately, a single phaser crystal might be energised - 'pumped' is the term used in lasers - in different ways to produce different beams. In this case the three tubes in Kirk's rifle would contain different energising mechanisms which would act on a crystal located somewhere else in the weapon - immediately ahead or behind the top tube would be the obvious place. Later models could improve on this by having the different mechanisms permanently grouped around the crystal.

Range Limits :

In the episode "Obsession", the ship gives chase to the cloud alien mentioned previously. This dialogue establishes an upper limit on the range of the ship's phasers.

Kirk :
'Range, Mister Chekov.'
Chekov : "Point zero four light years ahead. Our phasers won't reach it, sir!"

So the range of the ship's phasers must be less than 0.04 light years, or about 378,000,000,000 kilometres. That Kirk meant to attack the alien also indicates that he was going to fire the phasers whilst the ship was at warp, though this is not certain - it is possible that Kirk simply meant to chase the creature until it became tired and dropped to sublight speed and fire on it then. We will see more solid examples of phasers being used at warp later, though.

Firing Through Shields :

The episode 'A Taste of Armageddon' establishes another limitation on the ship's phaser banks. Kirk and Spock have been kidnapped, and Scotty and McCoy ponder their options :

McCoy : "We get them out!"
Scotty :
'If they're alive, and if we can find them. It's a big planet!'
McCoy : "Not too big for the Enterprise to handle, if it has to!"
Scotty : "We can't fire full phasers with our screens up. And we can't lower our screens with their disrupters on us. Of course, I could treat them to a few dozen photon torpedoes..."

It's not clear if the ship simply lacks the power for both full screens and full phasers, or if firing through full power screens attenuates the phaser beam in some way.

Transporting Phaser Beams :

TNG's 'Datalore' establishes that a phaser beam can actually be transported when it is in transit towards the target - in Lore's final confrontation with Data, he fires his weapon at the Enterprise-D officer just as Data hits the transporter control :

A scene from "Datalore"

As you can see, Lore, his phaser, and about a metre of phaser beam are all transported out together. Yet the Klingons in Star Trek VI were able to fire at Kirk while he was beaming out, and their beams passed harmlessly through and out the other side. Perhaps the actual weapon has to be transported in order for the beam to be transported with it?

Firing Underwater :

In Voyager's 'Thirty Days', the ship encounters a large spherical ocean floating in space. The Delta Flyer penetrates to the centre of the ball, where it is attacked by an alien lifeform. Seven manages to drive the creature off with a phaser blast, proving that these weapons can be fired underwater. This could mean that phaser beams aren't absorbed by water at all, but this seems unlikely. More likely is that the beam can pass through limited amounts of water, restricting the range to at least a few tens or hundreds of metres.

Beams and Pulses :

Normally when phasers fire, we see a single continuous beam, like this :

From "The Doomsday Machine"

However, this was not always the case. Take the TOS episode 'Balance of Terror'. In this episode Kirk battles a Romulan ship which is hidden by a cloaking device. As they prepare to fire on the ship, one of the officers reports :

Styles : "Phaser weapons energised. Set for proximity blast."

The Enterprise subsequently fires phasers several times; each time the phasers produce small pulses, much like those fired by the much later Defiant class. These 'explode' in space without hitting anything.

The Enterprise fires a phaser pulse in "Balance of Terror"

The pulses "detonate" in space.

The use of the term "proximity blast" indicates that the phaser pulses are acting much as anti aircraft shells or missiles do today, detonating when close to the target. It's hard to see how an energy or particle beam weapon could do this, unless it was either under control by the firing vessel or equipped with some form of sensor and control system, but as quoted above it is specifically stated that the phasers are being used in this way.

In "Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan" both the Enterprise and the Reliant fire phasers which are somewhere between the usual continuous beams and pulses. The ships produce rapid fire composed of short streams, each perhaps a couple of hundred metres long.

Once we get into TNG, the ships return to firing continuous beams - although they do tend to fire larger numbers of shorter beams than their TOS counterparts did. Pulse phaser fire is not seen again until the USS Defiant arrives in DS9. This ship, which was said to have been designed as a pure combat vessel, has a primary armament of four pulse phaser cannon.

At around this time handheld phaser weapons also began to fire pulses in some episodes, though the same weapons would also produce continuous beams in other episodes. It seems, then, that pulse fire is an option which the user can select at will - something that also holds true for the larger shipboard models also, if "Balance of Terror" is anything to go by.

Phaser Overload :

We have several times seen phasers being set to 'overload'. The effects of such an overload are somewhat variable - in 'That Which Survives' Kirk's phaser overload makes a fair sized blast, comparable to a few sticks of dynamite :

On the other hand, in 'The Conscience of the King' Kirk says that a hand phaser on overload will destroy an entire deck of the Enterprise. Later he changes this to several decks! But then in TNG's 'The Hunted', a Type II phaser on overload produces an explosion more akin to a firework than anything heavy :

The TNG TM suggests that an overload involves cycling energy from the power cell to the prefire chamber and then back into the cell again. The process repeats over and over with ever greater "flow pressure" until "the energy level exceeds the prefire chamber's density and structural limits". At this point the weapon explodes.

If the TM is correct then the explosion of a phaser on overload does not represent the release of all energy stored in the weapon - rather, only that energy within the prefire chamber at the time of failure is released. We can thus explain away the wimpy explosion in "The Hunted" by assuming that TNG Type II phasers have a relatively wimpy prefire chamber which explodes with only a small "flow pressure". Indeed, phaser designers would want to make the prefire chamber fail at the lowest flow pressure compatible with normal use, precisely to prevent huge explosions.

The disparity between Kirk's estimate of a phaser overload and the explosion actually seen could also be accounted for in this way, if we assume that two or more versions of phasers came into service during TOS. Or alternatively perhaps Kirk just exaggerated a bit under the heat of the moment.

The TNG TM states that the overload process is an inevitable result of the basic physics required to produce a phaser discharge. If this is so then a shipboard phaser cannon or array could be set to overload. It's interesting to wonder just how big a bang would result from that!

Wide Angle Beams :

One of the intriguing things that phasers can do is fire wide angle beams. There are various examples of this both in terms of special effects shots and dialogue. For instance, in the TNG episode "The Arsenal of Freedom" Data uses a wide angle phaser beam to disrupt a forcefield encasing Commander Riker :

Sisko and Major Kira also use Type III rifles set on a widebeam in DS9 "The Way of the Warrior" :

Whilst in "Frame of Mind", Riker picks up a Type II and announces :

Riker : "I'm setting this to level sixteen, wide field. That should destroy half of this building!"

Although Riker is actually participating in an illusion at the time, it is made clear later on that the illusion is based on elements of his real life. Since we have seen wide beams used on many occasions, there is no reason to doubt his statement here.

You have to wonder why such beams are not used more often. The ability to fire continuous beams would allow phasers to be fanned around a battlefield, acting much like a machine gun only better. Yet this ability is hardly ever used, even on those occasions when it would be highly desirable to do so. The ability to cover large areas with a single blast would be even more impressive, yet features almost as rarely.

It may be that the power required for such wide angle beams is quite prohibitive, or that they are only effective at fairly short range - most wide angle shots we have seen have beem aimed at targets no more than five or ten metres distant.

Off Axis Firing :

One of the amusing things about the less than ergonomic phaser designs used in TNG and beyond is that the actors frequently have trouble actually aiming the things at the target they are supposed to be hitting. For instance, consider "The Vengeance Factor", in which Riker fires at a lady named Yuta :

In fairness to Jonathan Frakes, he doesn't really seem to be messing up his aim here - rather, it looks like he is aiming at Yuta's head. My guess is that the powers that be were a little squeamish about showing Riker phasering a woman in the face on national television and so had the beam hit her body instead. Either way, it is very obvious that the beam is emerging from the weapon at a significant downward angle.

Whilst good taste and bad handling of props may be the real world reason for such off-axis beams, the world of Star Trek doesn't admit such excuses. This may be one of those occasions when we just close our eyes and pretend that the weapons really are being pointed right, because if that's not so then the implications are pretty far ranging.

If a phaser really can fire off-axis beams, it would be absurd to suggest that these simply emerge in random directions. There must be some factor deciding where the beams go. The simplest possible method would be to have something like a trackball on the phaser which you could move around with your thumb to slew the beam. However, this would be entirely pointless. No designer is going to add a feature like that to a weapon when you can just as easily slew the beam around by just pointing it in different directions!

This leaves us with some form of automatic aiming. How that would work is even more speculative, but at the very least it would mean that a phaser would have to able to detect targets and automatically point the beam at them. It would also have to be able to pick out which target you wanted it to hit somehow - in the above example there are several good guys sitting behind and to the sides of Yuta, and Riker would have to be certain that his phaser was not going to lock onto them by mistake.

Perhaps the phaser locks onto whatever you are looking at; the latest generation of fighter craft are already beginning to use systems which can detect your eye line, allowing you to choose a target just by looking at it. It's not out of question that this kind of thing could be miniaturised enough to fit into a phaser, four hundred years from now.

Or perhaps the phaser is smart enough to pick out friendly and non-friendly targets by itself, determine which of the non-friendly types is the most threatening, and automatically aim at that. This would be a pretty amazing capability - the phaser would have decision making capabilities that would verge on sentient!

Of course, this also begs another question - if such wonderous targeting systems are in fact in use, why do people miss so often when using phasers? I can't claim to have solid figures for the accuracy of phasers in Star Trek - at least not complete ones, this is actually something I have worked on now and again - but my guestimate would be that no more than 50% of shots from hand phasers actually hit their targets. Of course this doesn't rule out an automated targeting system. In present day combat you expect to fire tens of thousands of rounds for every one that actually hits somebody. An aiming system with a 50% hit rate would represent a colossal improvement on this.

If we do want some way to explain away the misses, perhaps there is some form of countermeasure built into clothing in the future. We know that Starfleet uniforms have temperature controls built into them ("Spock's Brain"), so perhaps there is some stealth or jamming capability there as well. Unlikely, but who knows?

There is nothing inherently impossible about these kinds of capabilities - indeed, most of it exists or is under development right now in one form or another. It's simply a matter of taking the kind of equipment that a tank or aircraft carries now and reducing it in size by a couple of orders of magnitude. Given that we are looking at almost four hundred years of development time, this isn't all that unlikely.

You can see what I mean when I say that the implications are far ranging, though. We've gone from a good old fashioned point and shoot phaser to one with an elaborate targeting system, plus clothing that attempts to defeat it. All based on the fact that actors can't point their phasers all that well. As I said, we could simply pretend that this off axis capability doesn't exist and chalk this up to production difficulties - think of it as the phaser equivalent of those times when a boom microphone wanders into shot.

Phasers at Warp

One of the other claims that the TNG TM makes about phasers is that they are useless or nearly useless when the firing and/or target vessels are traveling at warp speed. On page 127 the TM states :

'Virtually all phaser-related scenarios deal with sublight starship velocities, and for good reason. Space vessels operating at warp are protected, to a large degree, simply by the limitations of lightspeed physics. Phaser energy dissipates quickly in the vicinity of moving warp fields, especially when those fields are accompanied by active deflectors. This remains true even if the targets are motionless relative to each other (in comparison, subspace emission devices such as tractor beams and transporters are less adversely affected). Computational simulations suggest that and extremely narrow Type X phaser discharge, if released at full power and aligned along an oncoming target's velocity vector, has a 25% chance of disrupting the target's hull integrity. Other position and velocity combinations are subjects of continued research, since some small tactical advantages may yet be extracted for future use.'

Unfortunately for the TM, this is contradicted several times during the various incarnations of Trek. TOS contained several examples of ships fighting at warp speed.

In the episode "The Corbomite Manoeuvre", the Enterprise comes across an alien device which is emitting harmful radiation. Kirk orders the ship to back away, but the device follows :

Kirk : "Engage mister Sulu, quarter speed."
Sulu :
'Point two five, sir... it's still blocking us sir.'
Kirk : "Let's see if it'll give way. Ahead, half speed."
Sulu : "Point five oh sir."
Spock : "Radiation from the short end of the spectrum increasing."
Kirk : "All stop, hold position."
Bailey : "It's still coming toward us. Range one hundred ninety metres."
Spock : "Radiation increasing."
Kirk : "Power astern, half speed."
Sulu : "Half speed."
Spock : "Radiation nearing the tolerance level."
Bailey : "It's still coming, gaining on us."
Kirk : "Engines astern, full speed."
Sulu : "Full speed."
Bailey : "Range one hundred twenty five metres now."
Kirk : "Helm, give us warp speed."
Sulu : "Warp one sir."
Spock : "Radiation at the tolerance level."
Sulu : "Warp two sir. Speed is now warp three."
Spock : "Radiation passing the tolerance level, entering lethal zone."
Bailey : "Range fifty one metres and still closing sir."
Kirk : "Phaser crews stand ready."
Bailey : "Phaser crew reports ready sir."
Spock : "Going, we can take only a few more seconds of this."
Kirk : "Lock phasers on target... mister Bailey, lock phasers!"
Bailey : "Phasers locked, on target sir. Point blank range and closing."
Kirk : "Fire main phasers!"

There is then an exterior visual of the ship firing phasers as it continues in reverse flight. It's possible that Kirk just got lucky here - note that the above text from the TM claims that there is a 25% probability of disrupting the target's hull if you can fire directly along its oncoming flight vector. This would be exactly the case here, since the probe was chasing straight after the retreating Enterprise. Kirk would probably not be able to use a photon torpedo at this short range - episodes such as TNG's "Q Who?" indicate that using photons at very close range is extremely damaging to the firing vessel, at least in the 2360s. If the same limitations apply to TOS, then the use of a photon in this situation would be impossible.

Given this, it is indeed possible that Kirk had no other choice than to take his 25% chance with the phasers. One would have to question his command abilities, though, in waiting so long to attack that such a desperate gamble was all he could try.

Another proof occurs in the episode "The Ultimate Computer". In this episode Starfleet puts the Enterprise under the control of a new computer system, the M-5. The computer engages in wargames with two other Federation Starships, the Excalibur and the Lexington :

Spock : "Phaser hit on port deflector four, captain."
Sulu : "Speed increasing to warp three, turning toward them now sir, 1 1 2 mark 5."
[An exterior shot shows the ship turning to starboard.]
Sulu : "Phasers locking on target sir."
Chekov : "Enemy vessel closing with us."
Sulu : "Main phasers firing."
[An exterior shot shows two phaser beams firing from the Enterprise, then another volley a few seconds later.]
Sulu : "A hit sir."
[An exterior shot shows two phaser beams firing from the Enterprise, then another volley a few seconds later.]
Sulu : "Two more."
Chekov : "Turning to 28 mark 42."
Sulu : "Phasers firing again."
Chekov : "Turning to mark 113 mark 5, warp 4 speed."
Sulu : "Firing again."
Spock : "Attacking vessels are moving off."
Chekov : "Moving back to original course and speed."

Again, the phasers are used repeatedly at warp speeds. This is even more conclusive than the previous example; the whole point of the episode is that the M-5 performs tasks with maximum efficiency, and so we cannot conclude that its use of phasers at warp speed is a lucky gamble or anything other than the most logical course of action.

There is no known example of any ship undeniably using phasers at warp speed during TNG - it seems that having decided to say that the weapons could not work at warp, the creators of the show actually stuck to this line. Once TNG was over, however, other exceptions cropped up. Probably the single best example comes in the Voyager episode "Message in a Bottle". In this episode the EMH has been sent back to the Alpha Quadrant, and finds himself on board the USS Prometheus, a new class of Federation Starship which has been captured by Romulans. The Prometheus is cruising at warp when a Nebula class ship catches it and fires several phaser bursts whilst also at warp.

Dialogue in season one of "Enterprise" has indicated that the ship has some difficulty in using its phase cannon whilst at warp. Nevertheless, the season two episode "Shockwave, Part II" features one of the phaser cannon firing whilst the ship is at warp speed, striking and badly damaging a Suliban ship which is also travelling at warp. The following captures are from the episode - note that you can clearly see the characteristic warp streak "stars" in both images.

The beam is not aligned directly along the flight vector of the ship, so this doesn't fit the aforementioned line from the TNG TM. It's worth noting again that the Enterprise phase weapons are not necessarily the same thing as phasers so care must be taken in applying them to any kind of analysis. However, even if these weapons are not phasers this scene certainly does prove that firing weapons of some kind at warp speeds is certainly possible even in 2151. It should be child's play by the TNG era, and given the size of the cannon shown such weapons would be trivial to replicate and install on any modern starship.

There are several other examples of varying certainty, but really the above makes the point - the TNG TM cannot be sensibly reconciled with the shows in this respect, and so we are forced to conclude that phasers can indeed be fired and fired very effectively whilst at warp speed.

Arrays vs Cannon

During TOS it was unclear just where the Enterprise's phaser banks were located. Phaser beams would always emerge from the underside of the saucer section, but the precise origin point varied from episode to episode. Some episodes showed the beams emerging from the glowing white dome at the saucer's base, others showed them coming from points on the hull around or forward of this dome.

As a result, little can be said canonically speaking about the nature of the shipboard phaser weapons used in TOS because we never actually see them. We could rationalise that virtually all of the hardware is beneath the hull, perhaps with the beam firing through a small hole or window of some sort. Perhaps there are many such holes to allow the beam to fire in different directions.

With the refit version of the ship appearing in "Star Trek : The Motion Picture", things improved significantly. Even today the model of the Enterprise used in this movie rates one of the most detailed and highest quality ever created. And one thing that the designer of the model did do was include phaser banks on the hull. There are a total of eighteen of them - six on each of the dorsal and ventral saucer surfaces in three pairs, two singles on either side of the engineering hull above the hangar deck, and four more grouped around the bottom of the engineering hull. Although these are not seen firing in TMP, they are used several times during "Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan".

The visible element of each phaser is a small hemisphere sitting on the hull, perhaps five feet tall. The phaser beams emerge from these in pulses, each measuring a hundreds of metres or so in length.

When TNG arrived the Galaxy class Enterprise-D was given a much more detailed design. All of the surface features of the model had an identified purpose, including the phasers. "Encounter at Farpoint" got things off to a bad start by having a phaser beam emerge from the bottom of the Captain's Yacht, and the much later "Darmok" showed a phaser beam emerging from the forward torpedo launcher, but despite these two instances the creators of the show managed to depict phasers firing from the correct spot every time.

This time, however, the visible element of the phasers were quite different; instead of the small "ball turret" design, modern Starfleet ships sported "phaser arrays" - strips on the hull which ranged from tens to hundreds of metres in length. Close inspection reveals that these arrays are composed of hundreds (in the case of the longer strips) of smaller elements sat next to one another. On firing the usual procedure is for a glowing spot to move from each end of the array, converging on a single point from which the beam then emerges to strike the target.

On occasion the firing pattern is somewhat different; a beam can fire from an array without the glowing spots moving around the array, and indeed a single array can fire several shots simultaneously. This is usually done when the ship is confronted with multiple small, weak targets such as the Lysian defence drones in TNG's "Conundrum".

In "Yesterday's Enterprise" we see the Ambassador class Enterprise-C. This ship sports much shorter arrays than the more advanced Enterprise-D, and the implication here seems to be that there was a progression from the ball turrets of the 2270s through short arrays by the 2340s to long arrays by the 2360s. If so, then there would have to be some advantage to having longer arrays.

The TNG TM hints at that advantage. On page 123 / 124 it states :

"As installed in the Galaxy class, the main ship's phasers are rated as Type X, the largest emitters available for starship use. Individual emitter segments are capable of directing 5.1 megawatts. By comparison, the small personal phasers issued to Starfleet crew members are Type I and II, the latter being limited to 0.01 MW. Certain large dedicated planetary defence emitters are designated as Type X+, as their exact energy output remains classified. The Galaxy class supports twelve phaser arrays in two sizes, located on both dorsal and ventral surfaces, as well as two arrays for lateral coverage.

A typical large phaser array aboard the USS Enterprise, such as the upper dorsal array on the Saucer Module, consists of two hundred emitter segments in a dense linear arrangement for optimal control of firing order, thermal effects, field halos, and target impact. Groups of emitters are supplied by redundant sets of energy feeds from the primary trunks of the electro plasma system (EPS), and are similarly interconnected by fire control, thermal management, and sensor lines. The visible hull surface configuration of the phaser is along shallow raised strip, the bulk of the hardware submerged within the vehicle frame.

In cross section, the phaser array takes on a thickened Y shape, capped with a trapezoidal mass of the actual emitter crystal and phaser-transparent hull antierosion coatings. The base of an array segment sits within a structural honeycomb channel of duranium 235 and supplied with supersonic regenerative LN2cooling. The complete channel is thermally isolated by eight hundred link struts to the tritanium vehicle frame.

The first stage of the array segment is the EPS submaster flow regulator, the principal mechanism controlling phaser power levels for firing. The flow regulator leads into the plasma distribution manifold (PDM), which branches into two hundred supply conduits to an equal number of prefire chambers. The final stage of the system is the phaser emitter crystal."

So it would seem that each elements of an array passes its energy to the next, which adds its own energy and passes it on to the next, and so on until the energy of the entire array finally emerges from a single element. This matches reasonably well with what we see on screen - the glowing spots moving around the array would presumably represent the energy handover between elements. The 5.1 MW of each element would add up to 1.02 GigaWatts for the whole array. The use of multiple beams, or beams which emerge without the glowing spots, would represent low power firings which use the energy of only a single emitter or perhaps two or three emitters - just the kind of beam you would want in episodes like "Conundrum".

One interesting implication of this is that a Galaxy class ship should, at least in theory, be able to fire up to two hundred phaser beams simultaneously from its main dorsal saucer array. And each of these beams would be more than five hundred times the power of a Type II phaser on its highest setting - a setting, remember, which page 137 of the same book claims can cause "heavy geologic displacement; <=650 m3rock/ore of 6.0 g/cm3 explosively uncoupled per discharge."

In other words, each Type II phaser shot can blow up 3,900 metric tons of rock. Each element of a GCS phaser array would blow up 1,989,000 metric tons, and the ship could fire two hundred such beams from the main dorsal saucer array. Pretty spectacular stuff.

Careful measuring of the length of the arrays on a scale diagram of a Galaxy class ship can allow us to calculate how many elements are in each array, assuming that there are indeed 200 in the main dorsal saucer array :

Array
Length
Elements per array
Power per array
Main Dorsal Saucer (1)
798 m
200
1,020.0 MW
Small Dorsal Saucer (2)
20 m
5
25.5 MW
Small Dorsal Engineering (2)
16 m
4
20.4 MW
Small Ventral Engineering (2)
16 m
4
20.4 MW
Lateral Pylon (2)
40 m
10
51.0 MW
Main Ventral Engineering (1)
92 m
23
117.3 MW
Ventral Saucer (1)
630 m
158
805.8 MW
Dorsal neck (1)
140 m
35
178.5 MW
Total, all arrays
1,844 m
462
2,356.2 MW

Whilst the concept of adding up power from each element works reasonably well so far, there are questions about the usefulness of arrays. For instance, by definition each element of an array would have to be capable of handling all the power of the entire array. But if that is true, then why not just have one element and pump that much power into it in the first place? In fact, this would be exactly what the original ball turret type phasers appear to do! If one element can act like a cannon with as much power as the whole array, then the very idea of having an array seems pointless.

One possible answer to this is damage resistance. I mentioned earlier that we have seen arrays fire multiple shots, indicating that short segments or individual emitters are firing independently of the rest of the array. This would make an array immensely resistant to damage - you would have to damage every single element in the array in order to render it useless, as compared to damaging a single spot on the hull to knock out a turret.

Another question concerning arrays is length. The advantage of moving from the short arrays of the Ambassador to the long arrays of the Galaxy would be obvious if the energy added up - more powerful beams would be possible. But the ultimate weapon would then be the longest possible phaser array. Imagine something like a Galaxy class with a single array that spiraled and looped around the hull, combining thousands of emitters into one gigantic weapon. Yet not only has this not been accomplished, but the post-Galaxy designs such as the Intrepid, Sovereign and Prometheus classes are actually going back to having shorter arrays. The main saucer weapons of the Intrepid are four longish arrays divided by a gap at the front of the ship. Continuing them across this small gap would turn the four arrays into two of more than twice the length and therefore twice the firepower. Surely whatever systems may be in those spaces could be re-located in order to double the firepower of the ship's weapons!

We've created a difficult paradox - on the one hand longer arrays should be better, because the Galaxy class arrays are longer than those of the less advanced Ambassador class. On the other hand the longer arrays can't be better, because the even more advanced Intrepid/Sovereign/Prometheus have deliberately moved to shorter arrays.

There are possible solutions. For instance, it takes some time for the energy to make its way from the endpoints down the array to the firing point - typically about one second. The TNG TM suggests that there is a time delay inherent in passing energy from one element to the next; this would mean that longer arrays with more elements would have a higher delay than shorter ones. Presumably the firecontrol systems would attempt to compensate for this delay by leading the target somewhat, but no matter what fancy predictive routines you use, longer delays are inevitably going to mean a lesser chance of hitting your target.

So perhaps after the Galaxy was fielded threat force ships became generally more agile and difficult to hit, thus requiring faster reaction times and so shorter arrays.

Longer arrays may also allow beams to be more focused, more accurately aimed and so used over longer ranges. If so we could say that the very long arrays of the Galaxy class represented a "sniper" approach to combat, while the more recent ships have gone for a "machine gun" approach - brute force at close range.

While the TM's description of phaser arrays stands up quite well qualitatively, its figures are off in several respects. One major error concerns the number of elements are an array. The quote above claims 200 elements in the main dorsal saucer array of a Galaxy class starship. Looking at the bottom image on this external link, you can see that even the fraction of the array visible here has some 185 elements in it. I did some more playing around with scale diagrams, and calculated that the total array must therefore have no less than 933 elements. Scaling the other arrays to this we get :

Array
Length
Elements per array
Main Dorsal Saucer (1)
798 m
933
Small Dorsal Saucer (2)
20 m
23
Small Dorsal Engineering (2)
16 m
18
Small Ventral Engineering (2)
16 m
18
Lateral Pylon (2)
40 m
46
Main Ventral Engineering (1)
92 m
107
Ventral Saucer (1)
630 m
737
Dorsal neck (1)
140 m
163
Total, all arrays
1,844 m
2,150

There is a diagram of a cross section through an array on page 124 :

Scaling this against the scale diagrams in the TNG TM, we find that part of the element which projects above the hull is approximately five metres across. Now that we know how many elements are in an array we can calculate that each element is about 855 centimetres wide.

Power Figures

As mentioned, the TM claims on P123/124 that Type X emitters are rated at 5.1 megawatts each, and Type II hand phasers are 0.01 MW. Yet this is contradicted in several episodes. There are two major ways that an episode can contradict the TM's figures - either through direct dialogue, or onscreen effects of phasers against known objects.

The former is greatly preferable, as it reflects the writer's intent more clearly and is less subject to interpretation. We've seen earlier that phaser weapons involve three or four different effects, some of which have little to do with known physics. We can only speculate on how much energy it takes to push an object out of our continuum, and whilst we can calculate how much energy nuclear disruption takes, the numbers generated are staggeringly large - so high that it strains credibility that they could be correct. We do know that heating effects comprise a component of phaser beams, so we can make some calculations based on that. But again there is much speculation - how much of a phaser beam is heat compared to other more exotic effects? There's nothing in canon to say. For now, then, I'm going to concentrate on the episode dialogue.

Who Watches The Watchers?

At the opening of this episode the Enterprise-D is rushing a spare fusion reactor to a scientific station which has suffered a breakdown. Picard, Geordi and Riker are discussing the situation. Geordi reports that they have replicated all the parts they will need, but then says he doesn't understand why a three-man outpost would need a 4.2 GigaWatt reactor. The following dialogue ensues :

Riker : 'Enough to power a small phaser bank, or a subspace relay station, or...'
LaForge : 'A hologram generator. Oh, a duck blind!'


So, from this we know that 4.2 GigaWatts is sufficient to power a small phaser bank. If so then 'the largest emitters available for starship use' can hardly have an output of only 5.1 MegaWatts.

The Mind's Eye :

In this episode Data and Geordi test a Romulan copy of a Type III phaser rifle. We get the following dialogue.

[The weapon commences firing]
Data : "Energy flow is within normal parameters. From the prefire chamber to the emission aperture."
LaForge : "Rapid nadion pulse, right on target. Beam control assembly, safety interlock, both check out. Beam width intensity controls also responding correctly."
Data : "Energy cell useage remains constant at 1.05 megajoules per second. Curious... the efficiency reading on the discharge crystal is well above Starfleet specifications."
LaForge : "Yeah, by quite a bit. "
[The weapon ceases firing : total firing duration 34 seconds]
LaForge : "94.1% efficiency."
Data :
"Our most efficient discharge crystal typically fires with 86.5% efficiency."
LaForge : "Hm. Lets take a closer look at the wave pattern on the emission beam. That might tell us why its losing so little energy."
[The weapon commences firing]
Data : Data : "Pulse frequency on the prefire chamber reads steady."
LaForge : "There. That's not right, the initial output spike is inverted."
Data : "That might suggest the weapon has been charged with a forced pulse. Well into the terahertz range."
[The weapon ceases firing : total firing duration 17 seconds]
LaForge : "Then it's definitely not Starfleet issue. And there can't be that many systems that use the terahertz speeds."
Data : "327 to our knowledge. We can probably achieve an exact match with a random computer search. It will take approximately 3 hours."
LaForge : "I believe we can narrow this down with a little common sense, Data. Who has the most to gain from a conflict between the Klingon Empire and the Federation?"


So the Type III in this instance is firing a beam of 1.05 MegaWatts. This is virtually a definitive statement regarding the power consumption of these weapons.

The TNG TM claims that the Type III is no more powerful than the Type II - the rifle only has a higher power capacity (Page 135). So either the TM's figure for the power of the Type II is wrong by a factor of 105, or the TM is wrong about the Type II and Type III having the same firepower and the latter is 105 times more powerful. Actually the 105 figure would be the minimum error factor, because at no point do Geordi or Data claim that the weapon is on its maximum setting. And considering how casual they are about testing it - it's set up right next to the warp core, with nothing to stop somebody just wandering in front of the beam - a maximum setting is pretty unlikely.

Even taking a 1.05 MW figure as a maximum for the Type III, it hardly seems possible that a weapon which is less than a metre long and has an emitter crystal measuring a couple of centimetres - nothing bigger would fit into the front of the weapon - would have about one fifth of the firepower of a Type X emitter element which has emitter crystals on the order of four or five metres across and most of a metre wide.

Enterprise :

In the episode "Fight or Flight", the Enterprise crew talk about the phase cannons that the ship is designed to carry - three of them, each rated at 400 GigaJoules. They manage to fit two of these weapons in response to an alien attacker, but when they test them the blast is ten times greater than expected, i.e. 4 TeraJoules, because of an accidental overload. They later manage to find a way to avoid most of the harmful effects of this overload so that they can use the weapons at this higher level against the attacker.

The phase cannon beam takes no more than a couple of seconds to fire, so their power output is normally around 200 GigaWatts and more like 2 TeraWatts in the overload state. Even the lower figure is over a hundred times greater than the TM's figure for the E-D phaser array. It seems unlikely that the Galaxy class, described by the Borg as the strongest ship in the Federation, has weapons two hundred times weaker than ships which pre-date it by two centuries.

Another example from Enterprise comes in the episode 'Regeneration'. Trying to make the phase pistols more powerful for use against the Borg, Reed declares :

Reed :

"There's got to be a way to get through those shields with phase-pistols. If I cross-polarize the power cells, it might increase the particle yield. I'll be in the armory."

Shortly afterwards we see Reed in the armoury firing a phase pistol at a solid metal target. The weapon fires a continuous beam :

Reed :

" Increase power another five megajoules. Fire."
[The weapon commences firing. It continues to fire throught the following dialogue, with the beam becoming brighter and pitch changing with each increase]
Reed :
"Keep it going. Increase to seven megajoules... try eight... nine. The density's holding. Bring it up to ten.
[A hole is blown through the metal plate]
Reed : "That should do it. Energy flow is within normal parameters."

Rather irritatingly, this seems to be yet another example of Trek writers confusing their Joules and their Watts. Since the weapon is firing continually throughout the dialogue, Reed's orders only really make sense if he is talking about the power of the weapon, rather than the total energy it is delivering. Still, even if we assumed that only 10 MegaJoules were fired throughout the entire scene this would still equate to a power of hundreds of kilowatts, far more than the TNG TM's claimed figures for the TNG era Type II/III phaser.

Later on, Reed informs Archer that he has "doubled the particle yield". Since he increased the power by 10 MegaJoules (or MegaWatts if we're sensible about it) in the armoury scene, then the normal power of a phase pistol should also be 10 MegaJoules (or MegaWatts). This would be far above the TNG TM's claimed 10 kiloWatt figure. It would also be far above the approximately 1 MegaWatt figure for the TNG rifle discussed above, but this is not a problem because as noted earlier, nobody ever says that the rifle is being tested at anything like maximum power.

We should note once again, however, that the phase weapons used on Enterprise are not necessarily the same as the phasers of later Trek series.

Photon Comparison :

Looking over the evidence for photon torpedo yields (my torpedo article covers much of this), it is pretty clear that the bulk of the evidence points toward warheads in the tens to hundreds of megatons range. This is not especially controversial - we already have nuclear warheads at the lower end of this range. According to the TNG TM the standard photon torpedo has a 3 kg matter/antimatter warhead. The theoretical maximum energy release from this would be 2.7 x 1017Joules. Now of course this is a maximum, in that it assumes 100% efficiency of the warhead.

We can actually calculate the efficiency of a photon torpedo detonation from the DS9 TM; page 84 refers to an actual yield of 18.5 isotons for a standard torpedo, whilst page 85 refers to a theoretical maximum yield of 25 isotons, so the efficiency would be 18.5/25, or 74% exactly. So this would mean that the energy release would be not 2.7 x 1017Joules, but 1.998 x 1017 Joules.

Around one half of this should hit the shields, with the rest radiating away into space (unless the blast is focused somehow). Let's say that only 40% of the warhead energy released actually hits the shielding. That's 7.992 x 1014Joules (equal to about 18 Megatons, which is about equal to the largest practical nuclear weapons we have built). So, at 1.02 GW how long a phaser blast does it take to equal a single photon warhead?

7.992 x 1014/ 1.02 x 109= 7.835 x 107seconds.

That's nearly two and a half years of continual, maximum power phaser firing to equal a single photon torpedo hit. If phasers were so weak, then there would be no point in carrying them and no point in using them. And as the torpedo article shows, there are examples of torpedo detonations which are at least twenty times greater than this.

The rate at which ships fire both phasers and torpedoes on screen often tends to lag far behind their maximum. In episodes like "Booby Trap" we have seen that a Galaxy class can fire bursts of at least five torpedoes simultaneously from a single launcher, though we don't know how often such bursts could be fired. In "Best of Both Worlds" and "Half a Life" we have seen the Enterprise-D fire several single torpedoes per second. Using the above number for the energy release of a single torpedo, this would mean each torpedo launcher would output on the order of 2 - 4,000 TW. Going with the higher yields implied by "Skin of Evil", figures of 50,000 TW or more would be in order.

And if phasers are an effective weapon, then their output would need to be something around this magnitude.

One possibility is that phasers may be of lower power, but their energy may be incredibly effective against shields - we know that different energy types affect shields in different ways after all. Or the reverse is possible - perhaps phasers are immensely more powerful than photons, as nuclear disruption energies would imply, but very ineffective against shields! Either is possible, but a somewhat moot point - if a phaser has the same effect as more conventional beam rated at ten thousand TeraWatts, then it really doesn't matter if the phaser does this with only ten kiloWatts, or even ten billion TeraWatts for that matter. Ultimately only the effective power matters.

A Matter of Time :

Further contradiction of the TM's 1.02 GW figure comes in "A Matter of Time". In this episode Picard is contemplating a dangerous procedure to clean the atmosphere of Penthara IV involving the phasers. There is some concern about whether the phaser power can be controlled finely enough to do the job - a variance of 0.06 TeraWatts is required. This means that it is difficult to control the phaser power to within 60 GigaWatts, which completely over-rules the idea that the whole array is rated at 1.02 GigaWatts.

How much higher than 60 GW the total output would be is open to question. Given that we have seen numerous examples in which Federation ships are able to target small areas on an enemy vessel, causing pinpoint damage to specific systems, it seems that Starfleet has pretty fine control over its weapons. We know that in "The Ultimate Computer", Kirk ordered the ship's phasers set to "one one hundredth power", which he then describes as "no damage potential, just enough to nudge them". So the variance in phaser output during TOS would be less than 1%, probably much less. If anything TNG weapons should have even finer control, so the total output would be 6 TeraWatts at the very least. This would give each element a minimum power of 6.43 GigaWatts, and the whole ship a minimum output of 13.82 TeraWatts.

Conclusion

To sum up the things that phasers can do :

Effect Description
Stun This setting has been seen in use on virtually all hand held weapons, and was available on ship-scale weapons during TOS.
Heat Weapons in both TOS and TNG could heat materials like rock or metal to glowing point with short bursts, and have been stated as able to heat both rock and metal to thousands of degrees.
Disrupter Effect
This is apparently not part of a normal phaser burst, but hand weapons can easily be set for it be adjusting a standard control. The TNG TM talks of "nuclear disruption", but only the disruption part of this is canon.
Continuum Transition The existence of this effect is somewhat uncertain; the TNG TM suggests it, and it would explain why the high temperatures generated by phaser blasts do not produce large amounts of vapour, but no part of the phrase has made it into canon.

While we can state many things about what phasers do with certainty, we can really only speculate about how they do those things. The idea that phasers do some kind of nuclear disruption is almost entirely non-canonical - although there is a single canon reference to a 'disrupter' setting, Kirk never states that this is nuclear/atomic disruption. The idea that phasers throw things out of phase with the rest of the universe in much the same way that a phase cloak does is interesting, and the terminology of phase/phaser is highly suggestive of a link. Yet this is also somewhat speculative. It's clear that phasers do heat stuff up radically, it's clear that relatively little if any vapour often results, but we can say no more than that with certainty.

My suggestion that phasers are a combination of different weapons is a good one, I think, which explains away several problems and even finds some small degree of circumstantial support within the canon. This is far from saying that the idea is proven but for now, in my own humble corner of the Star Trek universe, I am going to label it the best explanation of some of the oddities of these fascinating weapons.

Where power is concerned, the TNG TM suggests that Type II and III phasers have a maximum output of 10 kilowatts, but canonically we know that a Type III phaser rifle has an output of at least 1.05 Megawatts.

As far as arrays go, we know some things with certainty; the main dorsal saucer array of a Galaxy class starship contains some 930 elements and has a power output far in excess of 60 GigaWatts, and probably much more than 6 TeraWatts. If phasers are to rate close to photon torpedoes in effectiveness, then thousands to tens of thousands of TW is probable.

The Galaxy class can fire single or multiple beams from an array - the idea of seeing more than two thousand phaser beams firing simultaneously from a Galaxy class starship is a pretty amazing one, but there's no reason to believe that every single element of every array could not be fired simultaneously.


Yellow text = Canon source Green text = Backstage source Cyan text = Novel White text = DITL speculation


Copyright Graham Kennedy Page views : 5,227 Last updated : 1 Jan 1970