So I have a question: I am told that there are naval lasers that target over 100's of miles ship-to-ship (not ship to air). Someone asserted that powerful lasers would refract differently than light. If I am seeing something in the distance (due to refraction) could I fire a laser at it reliably?

Would the light coming from an object seen over the horizon provide a 'path' for a high powered laser to travel back to it?

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    $\begingroup$ A beam from a powerful laser is an intense beam of light. So no, not differently than light. Perhaps you are thinking of differently than a less intense laser? High power can cause heating that can cause distortion. Or perhaps differently than a laser beam that travels only a short distance? Light is absorbed and bent by the atmosphere over long distances. $\endgroup$
    – mmesser314
    Commented Feb 6 at 3:54
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    $\begingroup$ A ship on the surface can't see another ship 100 miles away. Trying to hit it with a laser would not work. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Feb 6 at 13:10
  • $\begingroup$ can over the horizon refraction allow a laser weapon to hit something that would be optically visible? $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 6 at 18:18

1 Answer 1


Lasers are light, so they refract the same as light. However, when light is travelling in a medium it might affect the medium. There are so-called non-linear self-lensing affects where the presence of high powered light changes the index of the refraction of the medium through which it is travelling, typically through, e.g. thermal effects.

Non-linear affects like these mean that the light will behave differently depending on its intensity.

I would be surprised if such lensing effects were non-negligible for ship-to-ship communication through air via lasers, but I have no experience with systems like that, so I don't know what kind of powers/intensities we're talking about, how indices of refraction and beam paths would be effected, etc.


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