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Pardon me for asking, sir, but what good are snub fighters going to be against that?
November 21, 2012 12:55 PM   Subscribe

What would combat in space really be like?
posted by Chrysostom (122 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
It'll involve lots of pew-pew sounds.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:59 PM on November 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


Clearly, people will invent ways to make it just like sea battle -- torpedos, cloaking devices, and most importantly, the technology to have explosions that make sound in space.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:03 PM on November 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Sir Isaac Newton is the deadliest son of a bitch in space
posted by exogenous at 1:05 PM on November 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think Joe Haldeman pretty much already nailed this with his descriptions of relativistic space battles.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:06 PM on November 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'm about halfway through, but I guess the answer is similar to the answer to "how would naval warfare look in the age when a log counted as a ship" and that answer is "it wouldn't".
posted by hat_eater at 1:07 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would expect this kind of awkward "ship versus ship" warfare would be largely obsoleted, and actual warfare would mostly take place on a very large base to base or planet to planet scale involving massive horrifying weapons of perhaps flung planetoids or similar gravity weapons.
posted by Algebra at 1:07 PM on November 21, 2012


A couple weeks ago I spent literally hours on a textbook-sized website covering this same topic, among others (such as how much power is actually required to travel in space), but of course I didn't save the link. Anyone know what I'm talking about?
posted by muddgirl at 1:08 PM on November 21, 2012


There was an essay in The Economist about this a while back, right? What's with the sudden space navy obsession?

Anyway, I think there are always a lot of assumptions embedded in these explorations. There are multiple ways to do anything but without actually building them we don't know about the various limitations and cost issues that will ultimately select one thing over another.

Almost all science fiction boils down to either free energy somewhere or ignoring the laws of thermodynamics (since the vacuum of space is a very good insulator most spaceships will boils their crew alive). This essay and ones like it are only marginally better. So you might as well stick with the magic stuff.
posted by GuyZero at 1:09 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


It would look like computer hacking.
posted by wobh at 1:10 PM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Anyone know what I'm talking about?

Atomic Rockets?
posted by kithrater at 1:10 PM on November 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


There's no way to tell without knowing what kind of technology will prevail.

Sub-space harmonic disruptors? FTL smart torpedos? Mimetic control system subversion viruses? Bio-silk lightsail vessels extruding skeins of nano-wire at each other from light-years away?

Your question is unanswerable. Read more sci-fi.
posted by Aquaman at 1:12 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought Scott Westerfeld's Succession series had really excellent and plausible space combat. There are some cheats (FTL communication, some gravity manipulation stuff) but it really gets the speeds and timespans involved, and I thought the drone warfare stuff was pretty smart. He nails heat-sinks, too, which this article astutely mentioned will be quite important.
posted by heresiarch at 1:16 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Atomic Rockets?

Yes, bookmarking now. There's a whole page on stealth and detection that comes to similar conclusions as the OP.
posted by muddgirl at 1:17 PM on November 21, 2012


Aquaman: "Your question is unanswerable. Read more sci-fi."

Single-molecule bombs being delivered by super-sentient automatons against alter-dimensional god-beings.
posted by boo_radley at 1:22 PM on November 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


This brings us to our first realization: there will be no stealth in space. Any source of radiant energy in space will be very obvious.

Black Hole Spacecraft?
posted by 3FLryan at 1:23 PM on November 21, 2012


They won't fly in at some weird angle, necessitating a speedrun down a long, obstacle-filled trench and a single, lucky, impossibly-curving shot into a womprat-sized hole; instead, they'll orient themselves toward the hole from a long way out and fire straight at it the whole way in, because, like, duh.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:26 PM on November 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


Sir Isaac Newton is the deadliest son of a bitch in space.

I was really hoping for Sir Isaac in full periwig and 17th century clothes at the controls of an X fighter. Talk about disappointment.
posted by BWA at 1:27 PM on November 21, 2012


Sys Rq: "They won't fly in at some weird angle, necessitating a speedrun down a long, obstacle-filled trench and a single, lucky, impossibly-curving shot into a womprat-sized hole; instead, they'll orient themselves toward the hole from a long way out and fire straight at it the whole way in, because, like, duh."

you shut your whore mouth
posted by boo_radley at 1:31 PM on November 21, 2012 [11 favorites]


there are some cheats... FTL communication, some gravity manipulation stuff

Once you're cheating, you're cheating. Honestly if you can manipulate gravity, why not just put heat in boxes and throw it out the door?
posted by GuyZero at 1:32 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, everyone come over to my place and we'll bust out my copy of High Guard and we'll put this to rest for once and all.
posted by GuyZero at 1:33 PM on November 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Now I kind of want Sir Isaac Newton backing up my Shepard along with Garrus or Wrex. I figure he'd probably max out Shockwave or Singularity.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:33 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Obviously the answer is to skip it all together and attempt to transcend physical form and evolve into beings of pure energy before your enemy is able to, then you can just wipe their ships out with your thoughts.

We really should get started on that like now.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:33 PM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, everyone come over to my place and we'll bust out my copy of High Guard and we'll put this to rest for once and all.

Hmm, Sunnyvale eh? That's a bit far... but ok!
posted by aspo at 1:34 PM on November 21, 2012


It would look like computer hacking.

This seems like one of the most plausible, in terms of realism.

Actually destroying a target presents problems, because then there's uncontrolled debris, which could puncture your own ship.

Another thought is an EMP explosion near the target. No debris and the facilities are intact. Maybe follow it up with small probe that punches a hole to vent the atmosphere, so there's none of those pesky humans to fight back.

Maybe attach a device to the ship which will electrify the hull and interior? Kills the people and fries the computers, to prevent computer directed counter attacks?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:35 PM on November 21, 2012


Anyway, I think there are always a lot of assumptions embedded in these explorations. There are multiple ways to do anything but without actually building them we don't know about the various limitations and cost issues that will ultimately select one thing over another.

I'd prefer my set of assumptions to be "let's assume what we know about physics isn't entirely wrong, and see where that takes us" over "wheeeeeeeeeeeee!".

I would expect this kind of awkward "ship versus ship" warfare would be largely obsoleted, and actual warfare would mostly take place on a very large base to base or planet to planet scale involving massive horrifying weapons of perhaps flung planetoids or similar gravity weapons.

For major conflicts, yes - you would just build a relativistic kill vehicle and hope you wipe out all of your enemy with your first salvo. Why you might need some sort of space navy, though, is to deal with the problem that every reasonably-fast-moving spacecraft is a weapon that can wipe out half a continent with relative (ah ha ha ha) ease; the assumption being you would need some sort of licensing and policing agency to prevent terrorists and other such actors from causing harm.
posted by kithrater at 1:38 PM on November 21, 2012


GuyZero: "why not just put heat in boxes and throw it out the door?"

A new type of anomaly is spotted in deep space and a booming voice echoes ,"Are you the beings heat-sacking my doorstep?"
posted by boo_radley at 1:39 PM on November 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also: could the Millennium Falcon defeat the entire Holy Roman Empire?
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:45 PM on November 21, 2012 [8 favorites]


Oh hell yeah it could, good question though.
posted by Mister_A at 1:49 PM on November 21, 2012


I think the real question is could Pope Gregory VII make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:53 PM on November 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


New players to EVE always complain about the submarine physics. Eventually they get over it though and learn to focus on the dick waving and forum trolling, which is what the game is really about.
posted by ryanrs at 1:53 PM on November 21, 2012 [9 favorites]


Honestly if you can manipulate gravity, why not just put heat in boxes and throw it out the door?

Isn't this exactly one of the techniques used by the space shuttle when it couldn't use radiators or the radiators were overloaded? Well, "boxes" in the form of water vapor that is heated with waste heat and then flash evaporated in vacuum/low pressure and exhausted to space. (There's various bits of information about this system on the web, but here's a discussion from NASA.)
posted by advil at 1:55 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wars that officially end long before the weapons hit their targets.
posted by Foosnark at 1:58 PM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm trying to remember at least one novel which seemed to try to make space battles more realistic. I seem to remember weapon systems that would basically just shoot a massive grid of inert materials (basically cannonballs)
posted by bitdamaged at 2:03 PM on November 21, 2012


There's a whole page on stealth and detection that comes to similar conclusions as the OP.

Probably has something to do with the OP linking to it as a source. :D
posted by adamdschneider at 2:08 PM on November 21, 2012


It would look like computer hacking.

This is one of the things I think the new BSG got right: no networked computers. Ever.
posted by valkyryn at 2:13 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


water vapor that is heated with waste heat and then flash evaporated

That would get rid of your waste heat, but doesn't make it any less visible to your enemy. It also relies on an expendable substance to dump heat, so you can't use it forever. Might make sense as part of anti-laser tech on a missile, though.
posted by echo target at 2:19 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, heat ballast weighs a lot and you generally need heat pumps to make the best use of it which themselves consume energy and create more heat. It's only marginally more realistic than powering lasers with waste heat.
posted by GuyZero at 2:22 PM on November 21, 2012


I don't know that I buy the whole "perfect visibility" bit. Sure, it's not like you can hide behind anything. But we only just discovered Earth's first known trojan asteroid, and that's 300 meters in diameter, six times the height of the Space Shuttle. It's been there basically forever.

The problem isn't that it's hard to see, just that space is really big, targets are constantly in motion, and we've yet to develop any kind of sensor that can see in all directions constantly, much less identify and log targets of interest. Firing off a rocket is easy to see if you're already looking where the rocket is. If you aren't, you'll miss it.

True, the article assumes constant acceleration, but I'm not sure that's realistic. For one thing, it'd be enormously expensive. Niven and Pournelle dealt with this in their CoDominium series: military vessels were the only ones to use constant acceleration. For commerce, it made zero sense to lug around all that fuel. So merchants would take fuel-efficient orbits that did take months to cross a system. They'd do a few hours of burn and then coast into their new orbit. During which time they'd be essentially a slightly warm hunk of metal, almost impossible to detect if you didn't know what you were looking for.

So I think the assumption is wrong. This really is going to take a heck of a long time, and the result is that space combat may significantly rely upon stealth.
posted by valkyryn at 2:25 PM on November 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


However else space combat works, I think it'll work like modern aircraft combat in one sense; showing up to the battle with a technological disadvantage is pretty much suicide and you might die without inflicting a single loss.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:25 PM on November 21, 2012


I think the bugs in Starship Troopers got it right. We'd just knock an asteroid towards the enemy planet/moon/space station of choice.
posted by dazed_one at 2:29 PM on November 21, 2012


"This is one of the things I think the new BSG got right: no networked computers. Ever."

I liked this too, but I hated the conceit that if there was simply a computer network in the room with a Cylon then the Cylon would be able to hack the network through like wireless magic or something.
posted by device55 at 2:30 PM on November 21, 2012


We'd just knock an asteroid towards the enemy planet/moon/space station of choice.

That's what the article in the post calls a "kinetic missile."
posted by eustacescrubb at 2:32 PM on November 21, 2012


Single-molecule bombs being delivered by super-sentient automatons against alter-dimensional god-beings.

Hmmmmmm. OK, I'll defend by incarnating an army of meta-dolphinated seeker quark phages.
posted by Aquaman at 2:40 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


So merchants would take fuel-efficient orbits that did take months to cross a system. They'd do a few hours of burn and then coast into their new orbit. During which time they'd be essentially a slightly warm hunk of metal, almost impossible to detect if you didn't know what you were looking for.

It doesn't matter if you last fired your engine a month ago: that information is enough. Assuming that all engine-related light emissions would be tracked very carefully in a space-travel future, all anyone would have to do is project the merchant's trajectory from their last known point, where they turned the engines off, and then they know exactly where the merchant is and where the merchant will be. Constant acceleration isn't necessary, only constant monitoring.
posted by kithrater at 2:43 PM on November 21, 2012


That's what the article in the post calls a "kinetic missile."

Right, but he spoke of them being launched from spaceships. I don't see the need for the spaceship part.
posted by dazed_one at 2:51 PM on November 21, 2012


I totally misread the post as "wombat in space." I am dissapoint.
posted by lydhre at 2:58 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actually destroying a target presents problems, because then there's uncontrolled debris, which could puncture your own ship.

Assuming that the distances mentioned in the article are realistic, and I do believe that they are, debris shouldn't be a problem when you're tens of thousands of kilos away.

Maybe follow it up with small probe that punches a hole to vent the atmosphere, so there's none of those pesky humans to fight back.

I'd be shocked if the crew didn't suit up during a battle.

Maybe attach a device to the ship which will electrify the hull and interior? Kills the people and fries the computers, to prevent computer directed counter attacks?

I don't see how that would work. To cause electrical damage, the current has to go somewhere. I imagine that a ship will have enough non-conductive elements that, even if you could get current to flow, it would be nothing to worry about for suited up crew. In addition, I'd imagine that systems would be hardened against EMP attacks. Otherwise, just use microwave lasers from a distance.

I don't know that I buy the whole "perfect visibility" bit. Sure, it's not like you can hide behind anything. But we only just discovered Earth's first known trojan asteroid, and that's 300 meters in diameter, six times the height of the Space Shuttle. It's been there basically forever.

The article pretty much addresses this. Spotting slowly drifting, unpowered and non-radiating masses is a tricky problem that requires high resolution sensors and fast computation, and might even warrant active sensors. Spotting a gigantic plume of heat and radiation that you can see from a light year away is a LOT easier, such that ships maneuvering at combat range may actually be easily visible to the naked eye.
posted by Edgewise at 3:08 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wombats can be detected from space.
posted by GuyZero at 3:08 PM on November 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


It doesn't matter if you last fired your engine a month ago: that information is enough.

Sounds like an attacker would have to exploit places where gravity helps enable chaotic trajectories, where integrating forward in time would be subject to exponentially-increasing error.
posted by Jpfed at 3:10 PM on November 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't know that I buy the whole "perfect visibility" bit. Sure, it's not like you can hide behind anything. But we only just discovered Earth's first known trojan asteroid, and that's 300 meters in diameter, six times the height of the Space Shuttle. It's been there basically forever.

The asteroid isn't firing a GIANT NUCLEAR ROCKET out its ass.
posted by Justinian at 3:11 PM on November 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


Is it nerdy that the linked article makes me sad because it uses "speed" when it means "velocity"?
posted by Justinian at 3:12 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's a question that the article doesn't address: why have humans on board, at all? This is the future, right? It's not a stretch to imagine that an advanced AI could handle everything. Not only do human passengers have expensive life support requirements and represent a vulnerable point of the ship, but they put an upper limit on acceleration (assuming you don't have artificial gravity). That's another good reason why you can't have space fighters. Anyway, once you allow for high-tech that permits unmanned warships and frequent space travel, you might have such extreme acceleration as to dramatically affect tactics and other aspects of ship design.
posted by Edgewise at 3:15 PM on November 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


Is it nerdy that the linked article makes me sad because it uses "speed" when it means "velocity"?

I assumed that it was to make it more readable to most people. After all, the author seems to have a strong grasp of the physics. And to answer your question: yes, and I'm right there with you.
posted by Edgewise at 3:16 PM on November 21, 2012


Guns will probably be mostly useless: in order to be competitive with lasers and missiles they will need infeasible muzzle velocities of thousands of km/s.

Railguns, dude. Railguns. They already exist.

I would expect this kind of awkward "ship versus ship" warfare would be largely obsoleted, and actual warfare would mostly take place on a very large base to base or planet to planet scale

Unlikely. Any fixed target would be very easy to kill. A spacecraft able to take evasive action would be able to dodge lasers fired from light seconds away.

I'll second Haldeman's Forever War as being the best depiction of space battle I've ever read. There's a good argument that G-tolerance would be vital for any spacecraft at war. A drone that can maneuver at a sustained 25G will almost certainly outlive an human piloted craft that can only do 10G briefly or an agonizing 2G over long periods of time. (on preview, what edgewise said)
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:17 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Footfall, also by N and P, had a great final space battle with the best Earth could put together in the 90s while under blockade and partial occupation by space elephants.
posted by BeeDo at 3:19 PM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Footfall also has an Orion!
posted by Edgewise at 3:20 PM on November 21, 2012


Here's a question that the article doesn't address: why have humans on board, at all? This is the future, right? It's not a stretch to imagine that an advanced AI could handle everything.

Indeed. Non-military vessels might have a need for humans on board (a merchant on the ground to get the best deals, a diplomat for real-time negotiations, etc.), but there wouldn't be much value-add on a military-specific craft. There could be some hesitance on giving AI total control over continent-destroying weapons, but you would solve that by having a tiny crew whose only actual job is to make sure the AI doesn't make a bad decision. Remote control might not work due to the delays involved.
posted by kithrater at 3:23 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


kithrater, as soon as you have just one human on board you lose the maneuverability advantage.
posted by brokkr at 3:29 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's what the article in the post calls a "kinetic missile."

Not quite - he's assuming ship carried (i.e. pretty small) kinetic missiles/rail gun pellets that could be destroyed on final approach against a fixed target in a known orbit (i.e. the planet) using a network of bomb pumped lasers.

You could say, drop into the plane of ecliptic and strap some chemical rockets to a bunch of asteroids, or even drop by the oort cloud and bolt your own ship to a big bloody rock long enough to give them a good hard shove in the right direction, then repeat a few times over. If you're that far out, there's no way you're going to get spotted so you can take as long as you need to get it rolling. And once it's up to speed, you cut it loose, and it'll just keep going at that speed.

Or leave some ion engines on it so it can keep churning out the small thrust over a long period - and if you start from far enough out, you can still build up a good head of speed even with small delta-v on a big mass. After all, it's not like the planet is going to dodge. Hell, just pulverise part of the rock and chuck it out the back with a nuclear powered linear accelerator.

No close in defence net is going to be able to deliver enough energy over the very narrow window you've got to vaporise the rocks if they're big enough (and it's not hard to find ones that are multiple kms across), and if you just fracture them you've got much the same kinetic energy coming at you, just in multiple smaller chunks mostly still on a direct intercept trajectory, so atmospheric ablation isn't going to cut it either if you start with a rock big enough.

So your defence net is only good against missiles, or ships-as-missiles, i.e. something small enough to zap in the narrow timeframe you've got - i.e. your own ships gone rogue in local space.

But a really big dumb rock? You're gonna need to land on that with your OWN ships (assuming you spot it soon enough, it is after all going to be a very small dark dot in a very big dark space) and use your own attachable rockets/ship as temporary engine to give it a sufficient nudge so it would miss. So the counter to THAT is to have your own ships fly in the shadow of the rocks; send a swarm of rocks, your own ships flying right behind them to provide point defence/missile launchers against boarding actions, and using the mass of the rocks to hide your own heat signatures from life support.

And since your defence system is going to consist of light-speed communication and detectors (i.e. lots of space telescopes pointing outwards), co-ordinating some kind of action against said artificial shower of big bloody rocks is not going to be easy.

I think ships could work as a stealth fight too. Sure, firing off a main engine (like an orion) is going to make you stick out like a sore thumb. So you come in from outside the sensor net on a ballistic approach. Find some way of dealing with heat from your life support system (such as the afore mentioned black boxes lobbed out the back full of say, hot sand). Hell, forget the boxes and just pump the hot sand out the back and get some free delta-v. It's going to be warmer than the space you're dumping it into, but it's a lot more stealthy than firing off a nuclear bomb-pusher or a chem rocket. Make your hull non reflective (i.e. forget the solar sail) and you're pretty damn stealthy.

You've got passive sensors to see what's going on around you, and nobody is going to know you're even there. As long as you pick your initial ballistic route to go past something interesting - merchant shipping lane from a mining base, orbital solar collectors, pretty much anything in the solar system that's going to have a target to go after. Repeat with a bunch of ships at once, and hey, you can hit a whole ton of orbital or lagrange stuff before anybody saw you coming even if you ignore the planet and defence net entirely.

Ship to ship in naval engagement though... Once you've been spotted, anything you do will highly visible to anyone looking. Even if you burn and then go ballistic, someone looking right at you from a lot closer than half the solar system away would be able to predict your likely trajectory and have a good hard look at a small volume of space. You'd be able to jinx the system by not using your full burn capability early on, but yeah, you'd have intercept trajectories from a long way out, a very small window of sheer panic as you rely on counter measures, direct laser defences, and small unpredictable movements to throw off incoming missiles. Whatever is guiding the missiles would be vulnerable - either counter nuclear blasts to fry the electronics with EMP, focused lasers to blind the guidance system, or even blanketing them with ECM noise generating 'chaff' to avoid the missiles being able to lock on in final approach. After all, you know where the missiles are, and where they're going - all you have to do is blind them long enough to stop them reacting to your movements so they miss - once they go past you, they're never going to have the delta-v to come back at you.

Hell, some kind of rapid fire gauss gun firing shrapnel rounds that fragment in the path of the missiles might work (or big ass battery of ball-bearing firing cannons that go in a wide cone spread to saturate the approach vector, rather like that automated vehicle-mounted shotgun to target incoming projectiles) - even a small speck of something will go through that missile like a hot poker giving the high closing velocity.

In any circumstance though, the ship is going to look kinda like the Nostromo with refinery attached - a really big ass carrier of reaction mass, radiators, engines, orion shield maybe, a lot of water (doubles as radiation shield against solar flares etc) with a tiny command section with life support for the human crew. The more people you have, the more reaction mass, energy systems, heat radiation systems, water etc etc you need, so you're not going to see some naval battleship with a big crew running around a small vessel - nor NCC-1701C with a bunch of crew family on board! More like an aircraft carrier with the captain and a couple of officers on the flight deck. Weapons, engines etc are all going to be automated to the nines. You're not even going to pressurise most of it; most of it will be cargo, just to keep the ship running, and that will be stored in air-free areas, and if you go out in person, you'll be in a space suit.
posted by ArkhanJG at 3:31 PM on November 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


Speculation is pretty useless unless we're assuming Terran v. Terran combat, or extremely improbable near similarity/equivalency to aliens--both in terms of the basic variety of life-form and from there craft and weapon design. Like, we need atmosphere. Some other form of life might not. (Douglas Adams' 'hyperintelligent shade of blue' comes to mind. Or a few examples from Iain Banks' imagination.)

There's a fairly obscure sci-fi series (written by an astronomer or astrophysicist, and so pretty hardcore on the scientific realities) that plays on this, with the representatives of a first-contact spacefaring race deceiving the humans working with them as to their true nature and capabilities. (I seem to call the race being vaguely feline, but maybe Wing Commander memories are spilling over.) I'll try to remember, as I thought it did a good job with the whole boring-but-terrifying fidgety space combat thing.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:39 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Speculation is pretty useless unless we're assuming Terran v. Terran combat,

That's a very reasonable assumption. If Earth is ever attacked by Martians, they will be Martians descended from chimps.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:43 PM on November 21, 2012


kithrater, as soon as you have just one human on board you lose the maneuverability advantage.

Yes - putting humans on military ships would probably be required to satisfy political constraints, not technical constraints. Those humans create additional technical problems, but I imagine that those would be preferred to a potentially catastrophic rogue AI scenario.

But a really big dumb rock?

Agreed, there isn't any reliable defence against RKVs/big dumb rocks: once inter-planetary space travel is a common enough thing, if someone wants to destroy your planet, they probably can. You instead deal with it via MAD: unless Planet/System A can be 100 per cent sure of entirely destroying Planet/System B in a first-strike attack of big dumb rocks they won't attack with big dumb rocks, because the survivors of Planet/System B will retaliate in kind. There is of course the problem with rogue individuals, which is why you would have to strictly control and monitor all space flight to ensure no one is making unscheduled trips to potentially dangerous big dumb rocks.
posted by kithrater at 3:49 PM on November 21, 2012


Speculation is pretty useless unless we're assuming Terran v. Terran combat, or extremely improbable near similarity/equivalency to aliens

True, but anything involving space combat in our own solar system is almost certainly going to terran-v-terran; maybe the jovian moon colonies get uppity over the hydrogen taxes or something.

Once you introduce non-terran life, you might as well include stable wormhole travel, quantum-entaglement communication, non-terran elements, anti-matter containment fields etc etc. Anything that evolved elsewhere would be so strange we may well not even recognise it as life, and who knows what kinds of things they'd be capable of - especially if you consider that the laws of physics may be somewhat different (i.e. the standard model may have different properties) even in other areas of this galaxy; we assume the universe all works like what we've observed so far, but even direct observation has some big ass gaps we haven't properly explained yet, like dark energy/matter. Even without that, it's arrogant to assume that general relativity doesn't have some gaps in it, just as newton's laws are a vast simplification. The crossover between general relativity and quantum mechanics is a pretty big 'hmm' all by itself.

Anything capable of crossing inter-stellar distances, while crossing our very narrow civilization timecone is going to be either an incredibly fortuitous bit of lucky timing or they know a lot more about manipulating space/time than we do.
posted by ArkhanJG at 4:00 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Pernnially underrated sf writer CJ Cherryh does a great job of writing basically plausible scifi combat, particularly in her Chanur books. Probably my favourite gritty Traveller style SF.

She makes one handwave (ships have vanes that can accelerate and decelerate them in sizeable chunks of lightspeed, eventually putting them into a slow time hyperspace jump) and works everything out from there. So you have ships holding at system edge, tracking each others jumps, Acquisition of Signal times being vitally important, high velocity fire being deadly but unguided, high V rocks being planet killers, all that good stuff.

And she does it with humanoid cats but it's still awesome.

Though she also has ships docking nose on to the rim of rotating space stations, which as far as I can tell would be impossible so it's not all hard scifi valentines in Cherryhland.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:03 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Give me a couple of GOUs and ROUs from Banks' Culture novels and I can wipe out anything. Not that their AIs would listen to anything I told them to do...
posted by Ber at 4:09 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah it would be fun to cruise around in a huge sentient super-ship named Ass Bandit or whatever...
posted by Mister_A at 4:19 PM on November 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


an attacker would have to exploit places where gravity helps enable chaotic trajectories

Except that if they don't know where you're going to end up, neither do you. You'd end up flung off into deep space on some random trajectory while your intended target sits there wondering what all that was about.
posted by echo target at 4:37 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Niven also has a pretty good space battle in Protector.
posted by Splunge at 4:39 PM on November 21, 2012


Though she also has ships docking nose on to the rim of rotating space stations,

That could work - use your main engines to get you in mostly the right vector relative to the station so you're either stationary relative to centre mass, or moving together slowly. Then use some form of gas thruster/ion engine/low reaction mass thruster to push you 'sideways' and forwards so your motion resembles a tightening concentric spiral about the station until you match the rotational velocity of the ring and you'd effectively be in mini geostationary orbit - though using your own thrust instead of gravity to keep you there - then push forward until you dock. Not hitting other stuff near the station, or indeed other ships attached to it, including hitting it with any throw-away reaction mass of the thrusters would be the trickiest part though, and firing off the main engines anywhere close to anything else would likely be a bad idea.

Much easier to have a zero-g docking ring that stays static relative to the station holding point though, and rotate the rest of the station for fake gravity instead with some sort of rotating tube junction between the two.
posted by ArkhanJG at 4:45 PM on November 21, 2012


Aquaman: " Single-molecule bombs being delivered by super-sentient automatons against alter-dimensional god-beings.

Hmmmmmm. OK, I'll defend by incarnating an army of meta-dolphinated seeker quark phages.
"

Everythings's always dolphins with you, isn't it? (here's mine, btw. now you tell me yours.)
posted by boo_radley at 5:07 PM on November 21, 2012


ArkhanJG wrote: Much easier to have a zero-g docking ring that stays static relative to the station holding point [...]

If your ring-shaped space station is large enough then the docking space ship could simply approach the perimeter of the ring at a tangent, matching speeds with the perimeter, boost "upwards" to the underside of the ring and clamp on. That way, if you miss you either miss the whole station or intersect at a low relative speed; and you don't need to have a zero-g hub and an elevator between the hub and the perimeter.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:21 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wonder if he doesn't downplay the significant challenge of heat rejection too much. Also,mim interested in these analyses how the battle ever gets to space to begin with. Doesn't all this reduce to one party achieving a superior position and then picking off any attempt to construct or lift a threat out of a planetary body orbit?
posted by meinvt at 5:22 PM on November 21, 2012


Almost all science fiction boils down to either free energy somewhere or ignoring the laws of thermodynamics (since the vacuum of space is a very good insulator most spaceships will boils their crew alive).

In the very first scene of the movie "Avatar", before a single line of dialogue is spoken, the first thing that crosses the screen is a completely plausible-looking interstellar spaceship equipped with enormous heat radiators. My immediate first impression was "someone cared enough about this movie to get the details right," and I had a great time watching the rest of the movie. Not sure I would have relaxed and enjoyed it so much if they hadn't created the right first impression.
posted by Mars Saxman at 5:25 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Don't forget Aircraft Carriers in Space from a couple of months ago, an interview at Foreign Policy with naval analyst Chris Weuve about "what Battlestar Galactica gets right about space warfare," which was the subject of a post and good discussion when it appeared.
posted by mediareport at 5:43 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


GuyZero: "Also, everyone come over to my place and we'll bust out my copy of High Guard and we'll put this to rest for once and all."

And after we're done with the semi-hard SF space combat, we can play Attack Vector: Tactical.
posted by jiawen at 5:59 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'd think it'd be absolute swarms of tiny drone missiles hiding in a cloud of defensive micro-drones that flare heat to throw off detection. No humans needed.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:59 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Constant acceleration isn't necessary, only constant monitoring.

Except that your assumption that

all engine-related light emissions would be tracked very carefully in a space-travel future

...inherently requires constant monitoring, which I'm arguing is a problem. Could it be done? Yes. But it would require a massive, pre-placed sensor net. Until someone develops a telescope that can gather high-resolution data in 720 degrees in real time, anyone who didn't have access to that net, for whatever reason, would be basically blind to any threat they didn't already know existed, or to attacks from an angle they didn't suspect.
posted by valkyryn at 6:33 PM on November 21, 2012


Also,mim interested in these analyses how the battle ever gets to space to begin with. Doesn't all this reduce to one party achieving a superior position and then picking off any attempt to construct or lift a threat out of a planetary body orbit?

Yes! A story I've started work on recently hinges on just this idea. The faction with the 'high ground' are generally out-gunned and out-numbered but have their foes pinned to the planet.
posted by Mister_A at 6:35 PM on November 21, 2012


it would require a massive, pre-placed sensor net

Compared to the logistical and technical problems of common-enough spaceflight, I think that building a large sensor net would be relatively easy to achieve for a military organisation that expects space combat. Given the staggering military advantages it would provide, establishing and maintaining this capacity would be top priority for any organisation that expects space combat.
posted by kithrater at 6:57 PM on November 21, 2012


The Day-Glow demolition derby is a good metaphor for this sort of speculation.

'Again Dangerous Visions': "With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama" by Richard A. Lupoff is like just use all different kinds of things and see what works?

I think the bugs in Starship Troopers got it right. We'd just knock an asteroid towards the enemy planet/moon/space station of choice.

"I'm doing my part!"
posted by ovvl at 7:10 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


What combat in space would be like, I could not say. But I'm pretty sure this is its theme song.
posted by JHarris at 7:35 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Now that I've had the chance to (ahem) read the article: this is great.
posted by JHarris at 8:08 PM on November 21, 2012


This article avoids the tough questions like could a teenager with minimal training really hit a 2 meter exhaust port and thereby destroy the Death Star, much less get past several squadrons of Tie Fighters and Darth Vader?
posted by humanfont at 8:13 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


If there's no stealth in space, does this make Ackbar like the worst commander in space history?

If it was a fucking trap, he should have fucking seen it coming, amirite?

posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:23 PM on November 21, 2012


Yeah it would be fun to cruise around in a huge sentient super-ship named Ass Bandit or whatever...

Future EVE player spotted!

Anyway if you're not playing Battlefleet Gothic, you're a space scrub.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:25 PM on November 21, 2012


Except that if they don't know where you're going to end up, neither do you. You'd end up flung off into deep space on some random trajectory while your intended target sits there wondering what all that was about.

Just because your trajectory is chaotic doesn't mean you can't, for example, keep it contained within the plane of the planetary system. You are also able to monitor your own whereabouts the entire time, making minor course adjustments by Bussard-collecting ambient particles and slowly venting them in favorable directions. Any scheme that could detect that would be lit up with constant false alarms.
posted by Jpfed at 8:27 PM on November 21, 2012


Life is the quality of making Newtonian trajectories harder to predict.
posted by JHarris at 8:40 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


And after we're done with the semi-hard SF space combat

I love High Guard but let's be clear - it is, essentially, battling spreadsheets. You're just pretending there's spaceships. Vector-based space games... so. much. math.
posted by GuyZero at 8:45 PM on November 21, 2012


Here's a question that the article doesn't address: why have humans on board, at all?

I thought this article was merely a parable; the idiocy of warfare in space, plain on the face of it to anyone with more than two neurons, is simply the idiocy of all warfare writ large. So the question really is: would a space-faring civilization be idiotic enough to spend vast resources on stupid shit like warfare?
posted by maxwelton at 8:54 PM on November 21, 2012


What would combat in space really be like?

A World War II dogfight with lots of 'pew, pew' sounds.
posted by George Lucas at 9:06 PM on November 21, 2012 [8 favorites]


Assuming no gravity assist, you only need active acceleration for half of a space journey. The other half is slowing down.

Technology capable of redirecting and modulating EM radiation is a whole hell of a lot more plausible than FTL drives and artificial gravity. We're already doing it at microwave frequencies with metamaterials. So the enemy has some drones scattered around to detect emitted radiation. So what? The farther you are away from one, the more directions you have to shoot it, assuming you can focus it to some degree. Ideally, you'd tune your waste heat to look like a gamma ray burst or other natural phenomenon, then fire it off in random directions at random intervals, all the while emitting just enough ambient energy in every direction to resemble the microwave background. Some space phenomena, like pulsars, are highly directional, so the fact that other drones don't detect it doesn't necessarily mean anything.

Every clever system has a clever way to outsmart it. Such is the history of combat. So too shall it remain.

Also, why on earth would a human ever be involved in aiming and targeting in space? When you're tens of thousands of miles from your enemy, no one's gonna hit anything without a targeting computer. Assuming the protagonist isn't a Jedi, of course.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:12 PM on November 21, 2012


you only need active acceleration for half of a space journey. The other half is slowing down.

i.e. active acceleration for the full journey.
posted by ryanrs at 9:19 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nuh uh, space breaks dude, try to keep up.



This was a fun article and thread, thanks y'all.
posted by Divine_Wino at 9:25 PM on November 21, 2012


And after we're done with the semi-hard SF space combat, we can play Attack Vector: Tactical.

Oh, AV:T, the one game in my collection I am 99% sure I will never get to play. I have never seen a board game so scream to be computerized.

here's mine, btw *link to Ilium by Dan Simmons*

Ew, god.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:26 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


you only need active acceleration for half of a space journey. The other half is slowing down.

i.e. active acceleration for the full journey.

How so? There's isn't a whole lot in space, but there's enough over hundreds of millions of miles to slow you down.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:27 PM on November 21, 2012


Speaking of the Culture, does anyone else think the AIs keep the humans around as pets?
posted by shothotbot at 9:29 PM on November 21, 2012


How so? There's isn't a whole lot in space, but there's enough over hundreds of millions of miles to slow you down.

Why would you slow down?
posted by kithrater at 9:31 PM on November 21, 2012


Speaking of the Culture, does anyone else think the AIs keep the humans around as pets?

Not really. The AIs strike me as... apathetic towards humanity as a whole.
posted by GuyZero at 9:32 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why would you slow down?

Gas, dust, etc. Space isn't empty, it's just mostly empty. Over long enough trajectories, you lose speed.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:34 PM on November 21, 2012


Over long enough trajectories, you lose speed.

You're going to need to show your work on that one. Spitballing it isn't going to cut it.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:36 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's really, really empty. Voyager is still zipping along well past the limit of the solar system and it has next to no reaction mass on board.
posted by GuyZero at 9:38 PM on November 21, 2012


I mean, you may think there's nothing on the way to the chemist's, but that's peanuts compared to space.
posted by GuyZero at 9:38 PM on November 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


At the moment, far too lazy. I withdrawal the point, in hopes that someone will prove me either right or wrong. I'd be interested in knowing, either way.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:40 PM on November 21, 2012


beings of pure energy

Um, yeah. We also need to have a little talk about this "pure energy" nonsense.

Let me guess: it's blue, right?
posted by straight at 9:56 PM on November 21, 2012


IANAScientist, but.... You do slow down over time in space. Over very very very very long periods of time. Because space isn't empty, it's just very very very very sparsely populated.

Or, more accurately.... There is no such thing as absolute velocity. You don't slow down, instead your velocity gets averaged into the random particles you collide with.
posted by JHarris at 10:01 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not really. The AIs strike me as... apathetic towards humanity as a whole.

I don't think that's fair. For example it is stated pretty directly that ship Minds who don't have a big enough human crew tend to go a little bit nuts. They keep humans on board almost entirely for companionship. That goes well beyond "apathetic" in my book.

"Keeping humans as pets" is the Idiran view of the Culture. It isn't completely without merit but is also, I think, being too cynical.
posted by Justinian at 10:20 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


IANAScientist, but.... You do slow down over time in space. Over very very very very long periods of time. Because space isn't empty, it's just very very very very sparsely populated.

Or, more accurately.... There is no such thing as absolute velocity. You don't slow down, instead your velocity gets averaged into the random particles you collide with.


Maybe so, but this effect is useless for human-scale propulsion.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:43 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The observable universe consists of about 3.4 x 10^80 cubic meters of space.

It is estimated that the number of atoms in the universe is, coincidentally, roughly 10^80.

Please note that these are not evenly distributed.

Space is pretty fucking empty, man.
posted by Freon at 11:16 PM on November 21, 2012


I brake for Oort clouds.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:44 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe so, but this effect is useless for human-scale propulsion.

Oh, agreed, certainly.
posted by JHarris at 12:00 AM on November 22, 2012


You instead deal with it via MAD: unless Planet/System A can be 100 per cent sure of entirely destroying Planet/System B in a first-strike attack of big dumb rocks they won't attack with big dumb rocks, because the survivors of Planet/System B will retaliate in kind

Mind you, that assumes that System B even realises it's under attack; for all we know, shoemaker-levy 9 (the Jupiter splashdown comet) and the recent near-miss asteroid 2012 BX34 were dry runs. In about 10 years time, NASA gets a nasty surprise when it spots a really big one on a collision vector...

Better keep Bruce Willis on speed-dial.
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:13 AM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Every clever system has a clever way to outsmart it. Such is the history of combat. So too shall it remain.

Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your perspective or opinion), there is no convincing evidence this is true. What happens in practice is that the results of sufficiently clever systems eventually become foregone conclusions, and we move on to finding something else to be wrong about, like the consequences of those systems.
posted by JHarris at 2:30 AM on November 22, 2012


The big problem in fiction is that to keep it interesting, you want human decisions and human skill to be important during the battle. But in a realistic scenario, the battle is likely to last a fraction of a second while the ships are in weapons range. Some ways you can handle that are:

1. Have the protagonists set up an firing plan immediately in advance, and build up the tension over whether the plan will work, then have the battle in slow-motion.

2. Upload the protagonists' minds to computers so they can think fast enough to fight the battle in milliseconds.

3. Have some restriction on computing like the Butlerian Jihad, that forces both parties to stick to slow human reaction speeds.

4. Have the battle be ceremonial according to mutual conventions

5. Try to arrange the rules of your hyperspace travel, rayguns and forcefields to make it work like a traditional battle.

In practice it's almost always option 5, would be nice to see more variety.

One thing that rarely gets pointed out is that with seagoing ships, usually smaller is faster. That's had a huge impact on naval warfare, where a small ship like a frigate can usually just choose to run away from a large battleship or ship of the line.

But that rule rarely gets applied to option 5 scenarios. If a big ship's as fast as a small, it's rarely explained why anyone bothers with small warships in the first place, or why the biggest ship doesn't just always win.

I'm not convinced that there's much point to moving asteroids around. There's a myth that in space that however massive the object, you just need to give it a tiny push and it will keep going forever. But that only applies to relatively short distances. To get a kilogram of mass to significantly change its orbit, you need to apply significant energy. Changing the orbit of an object as massive as an asteroid takes a lot of energy. So, why not just use the asteroid-moving engine as a missile in itself? It's still an object with a massive amount of kinetic energy, but is moving a lot faster so it's harder to defend against. The disadvantage is that it might be easier to vaporize with a beam weapon, but I'm not sure if that outweighs the advantage of greater speed.

I'm also not sure that stealth is completely impossible. You might be able to use clouds of chaff, flares and vapour to confuse things at the kilometer scale during the battle, making it a lot harder to target you with beam weapons and railguns.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:56 AM on November 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


in a realistic scenario, the battle is likely to last a fraction of a second while the ships are in weapons range.

Actually, in a realistic scenario, the battle is likely to last several weeks, because there is no "weapons range" in space. You fire something, it goes until it hits something. But it might take quite a while to get there. So it's less a question of "range" than "effective range". This turns combat into sort of a long-range chess match, with weapons taking effect hours, days, weeks after they're first fired.

I think Alastair Reynolds had the right of it here. In one of his stories, he depicted space combat as basically launching truck-loads of gravel at each other at incredible speeds. You might not even know you had been fired upon until weeks later when two or three bits of gravel out of the half-million launched at you ruined your whole gorram day.
posted by valkyryn at 4:16 AM on November 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


One thing that rarely gets pointed out is that with seagoing ships, usually smaller is faster.

Does anyone have any info on the speed of third rate ships of the line? I remember being surprised at finding out years ago that sometimes bigger ships are faster because they can carry more sail, but I'm having trouble backing it up.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:20 AM on November 22, 2012


"Vector-based space games... so. much. math."

Actually, Laplace, Newton & Lagrange seems to do it without much arithmetic. (Nifty use of counters.) I've never been able to get a game together, but it looks very fun.
posted by jiawen at 10:01 AM on November 22, 2012


Speed, angles, acceleration, vectors, math, fooey.

Develop us some telepaths. They can stop a moving ship in outerspace, and then just pound away at it with the biggest gun you have.

Fuck all this math noise.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:24 AM on November 22, 2012


The best terrestrial analogy for space warfare would probably be a battle on a perfectly plain at night, fought between sports cars painted with phosphorescent paint, with machine guns mounted on their hoods.

Forget space, I want to see someone make a movie out of this.
posted by codacorolla at 12:15 PM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Does anyone have any info on the speed of third rate ships of the line? I remember being surprised at finding out years ago that sometimes bigger ships are faster because they can carry more sail, but I'm having trouble backing it up.

Look up hull speed. Larger tall ships in the age of sail were faster than smaller ones, but naval architecture and engines have changed things rather dramatically. There are plenty of reasons you still build small ships even when big ships are faster though, mostly relating to costs and area/territory covered.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:54 PM on November 22, 2012


Develop us some telepaths . They can stop a moving ship in outerspace, and then just pound away at it with the biggest gun you have.

Byron and the Teeps repeat performances were the worst part of B5. I mean, they nearly made me want to root for Bester.
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:36 PM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


So the question really is: would a space-faring civilization be idiotic enough to spend vast resources on stupid shit like warfare?

I think you answer your own question here:

...the idiocy of warfare in space, plain on the face of it to anyone with more than two neurons, is simply the idiocy of all warfare writ large.

Leading me to respond to your question above with my own question: why not expect the same idiocy to carry over? What about the technology of spaceflight is supposed to cure the human tendency for organized violence?
posted by Edgewise at 11:59 PM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


TheWhiteSkull: "I think the real question is could Pope Gregory VII make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs?"

This reminds me of one of my favorite advertisements: "Excommunication is a harsh sentence. Can you stand up to the Pope’s attack fleets?"
posted by exogenous at 12:26 PM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


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