As far as fantastical Nazi plans went, this one was near the very top – a plan so outlandish it feels more Star Trek than the Third Reich. This is all going to get a little far fetched, but let’s just go with this preposterous Nazi space plan.
The Sonnengewehr, or Sun Gun as we have come to know it in the English speaking world, would have taken destruction to an entirely different level. The idea was to place a giant mirror with a surface area of roughly 9 square kilometres (3.5 sq miles) in space which could have been manoeuvred to burn and destroy entire cities by focusing the sun’s heat rays on them. If that sounds a little familiar, it’s pretty much the same as when children use magnifying glasses to burn objects. And if I was to tell you that Adolf Hitler was the kind of child who used to take enjoyment from burning animals using magnifying glasses, would you really be surprised?
Obviously, this project didn’t make it very far but it does give us an intriguing insight into the lengths at which the Nazis were willing to go to ensure their global domination.
We’ve covered a lot of Nazi weaponry here on Megaprojects. Of course, not because of any ideological reasons, but rather, simply because they were just so damn good at making them – which almost certainly meant they were so much harder to beat in the long run.
The V1 and V2 rockets, the Panzer tanks, the Messerschmitts aircraft and the first assault rifle, StG 44, all came to the fore as the Nazis began steamrolling armies left right and centre. Thankfully for most of the planet the Allies finally managed to organise themselves enough to fight back and with the Red Army at the gates of Berlin, Hitler placed his own Walther PPK 7.65 to his temple and pulled the trigger on 30th April 1945. One week later, what remained of the Nazi high command surrendered and the war in Europe came to an end.
The Nazis had utilised some of the most technologically advanced weaponry the world had ever seen, but thankfully it hadn’t been enough to see them succeed. Things might have been quite different however if their most outrageous killing machine had come to fruition.
Archimedes and the Death Ray
But before we dive into the madness of the Nazis, let me take you back to ancient times and an inventor and brilliant mind by the name of Archimedes. If that name sounds vaguely like somebody you should, yes he almost certainly is. Archimedes was responsible for calculating Pi, numerous calculus proofs nearly 2,000 years before calculus was even called calculus as well as discovering that objects lose an amount of weight in water equal to the weight of the fluid they displace – a theory that became Archimedes’ principle of hydrostatics.
But we’re not concerned with his mathematical musings, but rather a machine that was said to keep the Romans at bay from his home city of Syracuse on Sicily – a machine that has been recorded through the ages as the Death Ray.
Now, let me just say before we move on. There’s plenty of debate about just what this weapon was and in fact, if it even existed in the first place. Considering we’re talking about events that happened around 212 BC, time has a habit of adding layers of myth, exaggeration and fabrication until it’s difficult to know what’s what. Whether the Death Ray existed or not, its presence in history has inspired others to attempt to emulate it.
The story goes that the Death Ray was a series of mirrors that reflected concentrated sun rays onto the invading Roman fleet, burning their wooden vessels before they could reach the shore. Sounds far fetched? It could well be. The first recorded mention of the Death Ray came over 300 years after the fall of Syracuse, which begs the question if it was such an extraordinary weapon, why didn’t anybody else mention it?
In recent years numerous teams have set out to either prove or disprove the science behind such a contraption. The TV series Mythbusters twice failed to replicate the Death Ray and labelled it a myth, but experiments in 1973 by a Greek engineer and later by MIT in 2005 did successfully manage to replicate it – well, sort of. While they managed to set wooden boats alite using mirrors, it’s still a world away from the story of the Death Ray almost single-handedly taking on the Roman army.
As I mentioned earlier, whether this is completely accurate or not, doesn’t really matter to this story. The concept of using mirrors to weaponise the sun’s rays was one that has stuck.
The Peaceful Mirror
OK, now let’s stride forward just over 2,000 years. In 1923 German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth proposed what is widely considered the first ‘mirror in space plan’. Still 10 years before Hitler became Chancellor and Germany began rapidly descending down the rabbit hole into his Ayran wonderland, Oberth’s ideas were based on purely peaceful motives.
He initially envisioned using his mirrors in space to illuminate ports and to thaw frozen rivers. We’ve certainly found much easier methods to achieve both of these aims, but for simply thinking outside the box – and the planet – you’ve got to give it to Oberth.
A Dark Shadow Appears
What was once a peaceful plan to add a little light to the world and break up those frozen German rivers began to take on an altogether darker tone with the rise of fascism.
The story does get very vague from this point and much of what we know comes from an article that appeared in Life magazine in 1945, shortly after the end of World War II. As you can imagine with Germany a smouldering wreck and many of its citizens teetering on the verge of starvation, people weren’t exactly boasting of how their ex-Fuhrer had wanted to build a giant mirror in space that could have destroyed the world.
The article stated that German scientists had been in the planning stage (how far along that stage isn’t mentioned) to eventually build a space station that could accommodate people as well as the giant mirror to enslave mankind.
The Space Station
The station would have been constructed in space with components travelling up using a series of rocket launches. This was still roughly 15 years before Sputnik became the first man-made object to be launched into space, so you can’t exactly say the Nazis weren’t thinking long term. Rocketry was one area that the Germans were well ahead of the allies and though a successful rocket launch into space during the years of World War II was well beyond them, it was certainly something they were moving towards.
The space station would have orbited the Earth at a height of 35,785 kilometres (22,236 miles) and come with docking units for supply rockets and solar-powered generators. The docking procedure set out was particularly interesting because it called for a small hole measuring roughly 9.1 metres (30 ft) in diameter to be left in the mirror that rockets could enter and exit from. From what we can see from the images, the rocket would have docked a little like a spear entering a soft object. The top of the rocket would have nestled inside the station, while the back remained outside.
Oxygen would have been supplied through hydroponic gardens and in particular thousands of pumpkin plants, which are excellent oxygen producers. The plants themselves would need to get their light from artificial fluorescent lighting because direct sunshine without any protective atmosphere to filter out harmful rays would soon kill the plants. Those in the station would have worn shoes soled with magnets to keep their feet firmly planted while helmets would be mandatory “to protect against forgetful crashes into the ceiling” – as the article eloquently puts it.
They even went as far as choosing an appropriate material to build the station. Metallic sodium is common among natural compounds and some of its earliest uses were for sodium cyanide and sodium peroxide but has gone to be used as a heat exchange medium in nuclear power plants.
The estimated construction time was set at 15 years and even came with a projected cost of three million Deutsche Marks ($7.5 million at the time – and $107 million today). Now, any sane person will know that this estimate was horribly inaccurate, especially with what we know about the cost of rocket launches now. But it’s important to remember that the Nazis didn’t even have rockets that could go into space at this point so almost certainly couldn’t have foreseen the enormous costs involved.
The Sun Gun
If plans for the space station were vague, details about the sun gun itself were even more so. The construction would have no doubt followed a similar pattern to the station with components brought up by rockets then assembled in space and again most likely using metallic sodium. This would have been a parabolic reflector, meaning in the shape of a paraboloid which curves upwards at the edges. A style of mirror that the Germans believed would have created a stronger light beam than a concave mirror.
The crew on the station would have most likely received encoded orders via radio or wireless telegraph. Once they were given the order to attack a certain target they would activate a series of boosters which would rotate the giant mirror to a carefully calculated position. Afterwhich, in theory, the sun’s rays could be concentrated on the focal point resulting in the total incineration of everything in its path.
With the destruction now complete, the mirror could be repositioned so it was once again facing away from the Earth.
Could it have worked?
Using the rough ideas that the Nazis set out, it’s unlikely it would have worked – certainly not how they envisioned it. The enormous amount of time, money and resources required to build such a device would have likely put paid to Hitler’s dreams long before a rocket even made it into space.
It’s also not clear whether a single massive parabolic mirror would have been able to produce a beam capable of destroying very specific targets on Earth. An altogether different approach would have been to build a series of sun guns then combine their power – but now we’re getting ridiculous.
As far fetched as this plan sounded in 1945 and even today, one nation has briefly experimented with solar mirrors in space. On 27th October 1992, Russia launched Znamya 2 onboard one of its resupply missions to the Mir Space Station. This was a 20-metre (65 ft) wide space solar mirror which was deployed on 4th February 1993 and created a 5 km (3.1 miles) wide bright spot, which travelled across Europe from southern France to western Russia at a steady speed of 8 km/h (4.9 mph).
Its luminosity was equal to that of a full moon so was nowhere near the power needed to actually destroy anything on Earth. That morning was particularly cloudy across Europe but a few did witness the strange light in the sky as the beam moved slowly across the continent.
In 1999, Znamya 2.5 was launched with a luminosity of between 5 and 10 full moons, but soon after being deployed it caught on the antenna of the spacecraft carrying it, ripped and became entangled. Despite attempts to free it, the project was eventually abandoned and Znamya 2.5 was deorbited soon after.
A third Znamya had been in the pipeline at the time, with a reported diameter of 60–70 metres (196 – 229 ft), but after the failure of Znamya 2.5 the entire series was soon abandoned.
A Mirror to Enslave Them All
The Nazi Sun Gun is one of those stories that sounds too fantastical to possibly be true. It’s almost certain that whoever was working on this project didn’t get past the very preliminary phases as the cost and time projection were well off, but the fact that it was even being considered by reasoned individuals is quite astonishing.
Forget nuclear weapons, if Hitler had managed to construct this sun gun the whole world would have been in serious trouble. Luckily for us none of it ever happened but the Nazi Sun Gun remains one of the most outrageous super-villain type concepts we’ve ever heard of.