Technology

Sonnengewehr, or how the Nazis wanted to burn cities with a beam of light from space

A station with a giant mirror rotates on Earth’s orbit. Here the monstrous design turns and burns Moscow, Paris, then London, and finally New York, with a concentrated sunbeam. It looks like a story from a comic book or an episode from the game Wolfenstein. Too fantastic to be a reality. And yet in Germany, perhaps, they were seriously considering how to create such a terrible weapon of mass destruction.

Content

  • Father of rocket science
  • Nazis and weapons of retaliation
  • Sonnengewehr, or Solar Cannon
  • Fantasies, propaganda or real plans?

Father of rocket science

The name of Hermann Oberth is known far less than, for example, Werner von Braun. However, the latter has repeatedly stressed that without the Oberth, mankind could hardly have mastered rocket technology so quickly and entered space. In the early 1920s, a native of Transylvania published a book in which, through mathematical calculations, he proved the possibility of space exploration thanks to already existing technologies.

Hermann Obert and Werner von Braun in 1963
Hermann Obert and Werner von Braun in 1963

The professor believed that humanity can build a rocket for a long time, capable of going beyond the limits of the atmosphere of our planet. And with the help of such devices it is possible to study the Earth and what is outside of it. In his work, Herman described in detail the multi-stage structure of the rocket, the capsule for the crew, its return using a parachute.

One of the ideas of Oberth was the launch into orbit of a habitable space station with a concave mirror about 100 meters in diameter. It is worth noting that the scientist did not bear any plans for conquering the planet and destroying the unwanted. According to eyewitnesses, it was a very modest person, always at the center of the usefulness of inventions for humanity.

According to his calculations, the station with a giant mirror was supposed to deal with purely peaceful affairs. Concentrated sunrays, for example, would be suitable for melting polar ice, freeing people of the land for the cultivation of crops. In the end, this thing could be a source of energy for earthlings.

Moreover, even Hermann never considered rocket technology as a weapon. During the lectures, he did not deny that intercontinental ballistic missiles with a bomb or poison gas could do many things. However, he expressed confidence that no country would ever take on such a heavy burden and responsibility for the use of such terrible weapons. Before the beginning of the Second World War, there were about ten years left …

By the 1930s, Obert had built a rocket, which he even shot in the film. True, in the process a physicist suffered from an explosion, which caused damage to his sight and hearing. But this did not prevent him from continuing his research. Especially since Hermann seriously interested in the Nazi elite.

Nazis and weapons of retaliation

After defeat in the First World War, Germany was severely limited in everything related to armaments. Over time, Hitler simply stopped paying attention to such conventions. But in the 1920s and early 1930s, it was necessary to at least pretend that the Versailles Agreement was worth something.

For example, rocket technology. Its use due to novelty was not regulated at all. Therefore, the interest from the government to the development of Obert and his followers was particularly high.

A sharp intensification of work in the direction of rocket weapons began to emerge after Adolf Hitler was finally strengthened as a leader in the mid-1930s. A special test site was built in the village of Peenemünde, where research was conducted under the guidance of Werner von Braun in the field of rocket technology. It was there that developed the V-2 – the world’s first long-range ballistic missile.

Officially, Herman did not participate in the creation of a formidable weapon. It is said, however, that incognito under a made-up surname, he visited von Braun’s team for consultations, and was also present at the first launch of V-2.

The fact is that Oberth himself had a much more important task for the Nazis. He worked on an advanced type of rocket capable of covering distances between continents. It is difficult to say whether Herman made a deal with his conscience by starting to consciously work on weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, it is possible that the romantic professor just dreamed of conquering space, without thinking about what his invention could be filled with.

Be that as it may, no Fau-3s were eventually commissioned by the Third Reich. But the high command was not ready for the inevitable collapse. At the end of the war, several crazy projects were launched into development. If at least one of them fired in the literal and figurative sense, one could forget about the surrender. This, in particular, about the project Sonnengewehr.

Sonnengewehr, or Solar Cannon

The project of the Solar Cannon, capable of erasing entire cities from the face of the Earth, was based on the works of Obert. True, he himself was not allowed to create Sonnengewehr – the physicist poured over the intercontinental rocket. The solar cannon was entrusted to develop scientists from the Hillersleben test site. There, by the way, one super-weapon was already tested – the Dora cannon.

Local physicists of Hermann ideas significantly refined, tailored to military needs. However, the center still remained in the spotlight. It was planned that it would be assembled in space from separate modules, which, for example, was later implemented in the ISS.

Modular assembly station. Illustration: Life

Artificial gravity should have been provided due to rotation, and the delivery of modules to orbit would be handled by the V-2 brought to mind. The work of the station should have been supported by steam generators operating on solar energy. Inside – gardens with thousands of pumpkins, actively absorbing carbon dioxide and providing oxygen to the station. There were even magnetic shoes for working in zero gravity and helmets to protect the head from metal structures.

Illustration: Life

But the most important element of the complex is a monstrous reflector with an area of ​​about nine square kilometers. Scientists have considered that for the weapon purposes the disk invented by Obert will not be enough, therefore it was significantly increased. The surface of the mirror was planned to be covered with metallic sodium, a soft alkaline metal of silver color. Under the influence of oxygen, it is oxidized (even prone to ignition) and loses its reflective properties. However, in space, this problem would be irrelevant.

In a state of inactivity, the parabolic mirror was supposed to reflect sunlight, protecting the station’s crew. With the help of rocket engines, the installation could be deployed so as to focus the sun beam on a relatively small area of ​​the Earth. It was believed that this would be enough to destroy entire cities.

Illustration: TeraMatt

Place the station was planned at an altitude of about eight thousand kilometers above the planet.

Fantasies, propaganda or real plans?

There is no reliable evidence that the Germans were seriously working on Sonnengewehr. The story of super-weapons to Americans who occupied Hillersleben was allegedly told by local scientists. They also said that there were two plans regarding the project implementation – optimistic and pessimistic. The first was to launch the Solar Cannon by about 2000. If there were many unplanned difficulties in the process, Sonnengewehr would have been launched for a hundred years.

It is worth noting that the first information about this fantastic weapon appeared in the American press in 1945, right on the eve of the complete surrender of Germany. It is possible that all this was only part of the propaganda necessary for the allies at this time.

Photo: NASA

However, this does not exclude the fact that Obert really described in his book a kind of Sonnengewehr. And given the Nazis love for all kinds of “weapons of retribution”, it is possible that in the last years of the war they were ready to grab any saving straw, even if it was a project with a uber-mirror that you need to build for ages.

According to current calculations, at such a distance from the planet, the Solar Cannon would still not be able to generate energy, the power of which would be enough to burn cities. So Sonnengewehr in any case threatened to turn into the most useless development of the Germans.


Herman Obert, by the way, lived a long life and saw with his own eyes how humanity conquers space. The German physicist died in 1989, having had time to work with Werner von Braun within the framework of the American space program. None of them tried to create a killer mirror.

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