Can you fire a gun in space?

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American military space force soldier holding a weapon with Earth's reflection in the helmet. 3d rendering (Image Credit: Shutterstock)

Can you fire a gun in space? Fires can’t burn in the oxygen-free vacuum of space, yet guns can shoot. Modern ammunition carries its own oxidizer, a chemical that will ignite the explosion of gunpowder, and hence the shooting of a bullet, wherever you are in the universe. No atmospheric oxygen is needed.

When you pull the trigger on Earth, the smoke trail is round; it’s oval when you do it in space. In space, “there would be an expanding disk of smoke from the top of the barrel,” said Peter Schultz, an astronomer at Brown University who analyzes impact craters.

The prospect of firing in space allows for all sorts of crazy situations.

Shooting stars

Imagine you’re flying freely in the void between galaxies– just you, your pistol and a single bullet. You have two alternatives. Instead of trying to find out how you got there, you can just shoot the dang universe.

If you do the latter, Newton’s third law of motion requires that the force exerted on the bullet transmit an equal and opposite power on the gun, and, since you’re holding the gun, you. With relatively few cosmic atoms against which to brace oneself, you’ll start going backwards (not that you’d have any way of knowing). Even if the bullet travels at 1,000 meters per second when it leaves the gun barrel, you will only be travelling at a few millimetres per second in the opposite direction since you are considerably more massive.

Once fired, the bullet will continue to travel indefinitely. Because the cosmos is growing too quickly for a shot to catch up with, astronomer Matija Cuk of Harvard University and the SETI Institute claims that the bullet will never come to a halt. (If the universe weren’t expanding, then the one or two atoms per cubic centimetre encountered by the shot in the near-vacuum of space would bring it to a halt after 10 million light-years.)

Getting down to technicalities, the universe expands at a pace of 73 kilometres per second per megaparsec (approximately 3 million light-years, or the average distance between galaxies) (about 3 million light-years, or the average distance between galaxies). According to Cuk’s estimates, this implies that the matter 40,000 to 50,000 light-years distant from the bullet would move away from it at nearly the same speed at which it is travelling and therefore remain eternally out of reach. In the whole future of the cosmos, the bullet will catch up only to atoms that are fewer than 40,000 or so light-years from the chamber of your gun.

Speaking of you, you’ll be bobbing around space forever, too.

Also Read: How old is the earth we live on?

Shooting giants from the hip

Can you fire a gun in space
Astronaut is walking with a laser gun, 3d illustration (Image Credit: Shutterstock)

Guns do indeed get taken to space, but not quite to the abyss between galaxies. For decades, the usual survival bag for Russian cosmonauts has contained a rifle. Until recently, it wasn’t just any pistol, but “a premium all-in-one weapon with three barrels and a folding stock that serves as a spade and holds a swing-out machete,” according to space historian James Oberg. The space guns are supplied if the cosmonauts need one back on Earth to defend themselves if an unexpected landing of their Soyuz spacecraft has left them stranded in an unsafe zone. Nevertheless, cosmonauts in principle could shoot their guns before they arrived.

So what if a cosmonaut shot at Jupiter during a spacewalk?

They should feel comfortable shooting from the hip. According to Robert Flack, a physicist at University College London, the tremendous gravitational field of Jupiter is likely to pull in a bullet even if it is ill shot. “Jupiter is so large, it will trap the bullet and ,then it will take a curving course down into the planet,” Flack added.

The momentum will build quickly from there. According to Schultz, if the bullet is launched directly at Jupiter, the planet’s gravity would accelerate the ammunition to the eye-popping speed of over 60 kilometres per second by the time it reaches the gas giant’s barrier.

Watch your back

A cowardly act is shooting someone in the back. “Theoretically, you could shoot yourself in the back” in outer space.

For instance, while in orbit around a planet, you may do it that way. Because things circling planets are genuinely in a permanent state of free fall, you have to get the configuration precisely right. You’d have to shoot horizontally at exactly the proper height for the bullet to circle the globe and fall back to where it originated (you) (you). When you shoot, keep in mind how far you’ll be thrown backwards (and, as a result, how much your attitude will shift).

“The objective needs to be ideal,” Schultz added.

Such a situation isn’t as crazy as it seems. Schultz said scientists have considered putting up a self-hit experiment in space to better understand the repercussions of high-speed hits.

However, given all the arithmetic required, Cuk says it could be simpler to commit space suicide by standing on a mountain on the moon. “‘Shooting oneself in the back’ works in theory if you shoot a bullet at horizon from the top of a lunar mountain, at 1600 meters per second or such,” he remarked. According to him, if you change your aim to account for bumps and irregularities in the moon’s structure that might impact the height of the bullet as it travels, it just could work!

With so many alternative movie plotlines to examine, one issue remains: Why are there so few space shoot ’em ups?

Also Read: What Is an astronaut costume (Spacesuit)?
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