Missile defense has been a priority in the United States for decades, in no small part because the threat posed by long-range, nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles remains as one of the few direct threats to the American mainland that could arise with little to no warning. In today’s world, it would be all but impossible to sneak up to American shores with a sizable military contingent. Still, for the most part, the only thing stopping a nation from flinging nukes at the U.S. from across the sea is the assurance America will retaliate in kind.

Now, with hypersonic missile platforms nearing service in both Chinese and Russian militaries and both nations fielding new nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles designed specifically to circumvent America’s layered approach to missile defense, Uncle Sam is on the hunt for new ways to counter the threats posed by advanced missile platforms. Some believe it’s been found in a rather science fiction-sounding endeavor: deploying directed-energy weapons to engage and destroy missiles.

Particle beam weapons work, to a certain extent, like lasers and are often referred to as “heat rays.” However, unlike lasers, particle beams work by accelerating particles (usually neutrons) without an electric charge to near-light speed velocities. When that beam of accelerated particles hits an intended target, the neutrons fired knock protons out of the nucleus of particles they encounter, creating heat.

That means particle beams don’t just interact with the surface of a target the way lasers do, but instead, they can penetrate the surface and affect a missile’s internal systems as well. While reflective surfaces can be used as an occasional means to redirect lasers, particles beams have no such issue, penetrating directly though the mirrored surface and wreaking havoc on the intended target.