Space shotgun isn’t a return to armed astronauts

Honeybee Robotics has a new concept to show you. It’s a space shotgun.

Why would you want to take a shotgun to space, you might ask. There’s no evidence of life on Mars and, even if there is life there, it’s likely to be small enough to squash with a rolled-up newspaper.

Well, the space shotgun isn’t designed for combat – in fact it’s intended for the entirely benign task of measuring asteroids. Plus, it’s attached to a robot so, even though it could do damage to humans, you couldn’t practically threaten anyone with it. Unless they resemble an asteroid.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting though – far from it. It’s a novel approach to studying asteroids by shooting at them and seeing how they respond. You can actually learn a surprising amount using this technique, especially as the space shotgun has three settings with which to measure an asteroid.

First of all, you can measure an asteroid’s hardness. You do that by firing balls filled with retroreflectors at the asteroid, and seeing if they crack open or not. Next up, you can figure out the strength of an asteroid by firing a ball at it and tracking its rebound velocity. Thirdly, you can check its density by creating a crater that can then be measured.

So not an actual space gun, then. That makes sense – I mean, nobody would take a gun to space, right?


This is the TP-82 pistol, which was included in the Soviet/Russian Emergency-Survival Kit between 1982 and 2006. It was only retired because its ammo became unusable.

If you’re the kind of person who subscribes to Soldier of Fortune magazine, you might notice that this doesn’t look like a conventional weapon, and it isn’t: it’s a triple-barrelled single shot break shotgun and rifle with a machete attachment. That’s a lot of threat for a peaceful space mission.

That’s because it wasn’t actually intended for use in space. The story of the TP-82 pistol actually dates back to 1965, 16 years before the design was finally approved. A Voskhod spacecraft developed a fault and landed in the Western Urals, some 600 miles from its intended landing site. The cosmonaut inside – Alexey Leonov – had to trek back through a harsh environment dotted with wolves and bears. He feared his nine-millimetre pistol wouldn’t do the job, and

successfully lobbied the powers that be for an improved firearm for future trips after making it back.

You may think developing a space gun would violate the terms of the Outer Space Treaty, designed to guarantee the peaceful exploration of space, but it doesn’t actually block conventional weapons. It does block weapons of mass destruction though, which might create an impasse for certain people’s terraforming

Mark Shuttleworth trains with the TP-82 rifle. (FirstAfricanInSpace)

But I digress. Despite Russian cosmonauts packing heat, NASA has never allowed firearms to go into space, though they did provide machetes in case an astronaut were to land in jungle areas.

When the International Space Station (ISS) opened, however, NASA astronauts had to become familiar with the use of the TP-82, and underwent survival training in the Black Sea. Astronaut Mike Foale, who was stationed both on the Mir and ISS, said of the gun: “Other than firing flares, birdshot and a hard slug from its three barrels, during sea and winter survival training, I can’t say it is very unique.”

Veteran space journalist James Oberg, aware of “recent space team psychological problems”, campaigned against the need for a gun in space – suggesting that the TP-82 be kept in a compartment only accessible from outside the vehicle (for use only on Earth), but was ignored.

In the long-run though, he seems to have won. According to Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, a pistol is still on the official list of survival kit contents, but hasn’t been included for the past few years after being put to a vote before each mission.

A wonderful case of unilateral disarmament in action: if only our governments could follow our astronauts’ peacenik example, eh?

Lead image: NASA

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