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Designing Space Fighters & Marines
December 17, 2009 3:11 PM   Subscribe

The Physics of Space Battles "I had a discussion recently with friends about the various depictions of space combat in science fiction movies, TV shows, and books. We have the fighter-plane engagements of Star Wars, the subdued, two-dimensional naval combat in Star Trek, the Newtonian planes of Battlestar Galactica, the staggeringly furious energy exchanges of the combat wasps in Peter Hamilton's books, and the use of antimatter rocket engines themselves as weapons in other sci-fi. But suppose we get out there, go terraform Mars, and the Martian colonists actually revolt. Or suppose we encounter hostile aliens. How would space combat actually go?"
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey (106 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
It would be much less noisy than as depicted in film, because in space, no one can hear you scream.
posted by elizardbits at 3:20 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


  • There's a very lengthy and detailed relativistic-speed space battle in Larry Niven's PROTECTOR.
  • EE Doc Smith's planet-destroying weapons and spaceships in the Lensman series are fun too.

  • posted by alasdair at 3:22 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


    See also: War in Spaaaaaaaace!
    posted by Science! at 3:25 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


    High-velocity projectiles, it doesn't even matter what the projectiles are.
    posted by odinsdream at 3:29 PM on December 17, 2009


    I always imagined that it would be just a huge empty blackness with the other ships too far away to see, the computer would identify and target them, and your ship would fire a cloud of ball bearings at relativistic speeds, which would make them more than capable of destroying any hull encountered. All of this would happen in complete silence and there would be no explosion. The other ship would simply decompress killing anyone in compartments that hadn't been sealed. The only flight that might happen would be the targeted ship accelerating away on an angle in an attempt to minimize contact with the cloud, but no flashy diving and rolling, just a calculated hard burn.

    I figure it's probably pretty accurate to what will happen, it just wouldn't look very good on film though.
    posted by quin at 3:33 PM on December 17, 2009 [15 favorites]


    There's a good section on space warfare on the generally-nifty site Atomic Rocket.
    posted by Drastic at 3:34 PM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


    A little something like this (Legend of Galactic Heroes, a "space opera with thousands of ships in battle").
    posted by filthy light thief at 3:38 PM on December 17, 2009


    see also: Atomic Rockets which is more thorough and contains helpful physics lessons and snippets of novels. Seriously, Atomic Rockets is one of my favorite webpages.
    posted by fuq at 3:39 PM on December 17, 2009


    Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey: "But suppose we get out there, go terraform Mars, and the Martian colonists actually revolt. Or suppose we encounter hostile aliens. How would space combat actually go?"

    I bet they'd break the space elevator, for starters.

    DRTFA
    posted by Plutor at 3:39 PM on December 17, 2009 [6 favorites]


    There's a good section on space warfare on the generally-nifty site Atomic Rocket.

    Guess I'm not the only one, but I'm the slowest. That would never do in space war. I'll leave the bridge now. Number one, this is your ship now.... (removes insignias)
    posted by fuq at 3:42 PM on December 17, 2009


    Remember, the enemy's gate is down.
    posted by milarepa at 3:48 PM on December 17, 2009 [8 favorites]


    I'm increasingly convinced that, absent any superscience stuff (gravity control, reactionless drives, etc) manned combat ships are total fantasy. Armor is preposterous, dodging is limited if not outright impossible, single hit to kill seems to be the most likely result of any weapon.

    Take out the humans and a ship can burn harder and thus get more out of its limited fuel.

    Take out the life support for the humans and the ship can cram in more fuel, weapons, sensors, etc.

    Worse, since the outcome of realistic space combat is likely to be determined by who sees who first, emissions control is going to be extremely important. No humans == fewer emissions if for no other reason than we all radiate at 37 degrees and that heat has to be radiated somehow.

    Given all that I don't know how it would be possible for a manned ship to successfully compete in combat with an unmanned ship.

    Space combat would basically come down to who had the best combat AI, and the best drones in which to house that AI.
    posted by sotonohito at 3:49 PM on December 17, 2009 [5 favorites]


    quin: I think a good director could make even that interesting. The thought of silent, cold death as your tiny ship is shredded by flak, decompressing in the middle of the enormity and emptiness of space, would make for one heck of a heart-stopping scene. Maybe not for a summer blockbuster, but certainly for a horror/sci-fi/thriller. Less Pearl Harbor and more Das Boot.
    posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 3:52 PM on December 17, 2009 [7 favorites]


    Fourthing the recommendation of Project Rho's Atomic Rockets. The amount of valuable information about space travel is unparalleled.

    For an attempt to make 3D space warfare playable, I enjoy Attack Vector Tactical. What other board games take into account: posted by autopilot at 3:52 PM on December 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


    Kim Stanley Robinson wrote about interplanetary warfare between Mars and Earth in the Mars trilogy; in it, Mars attacks Earth by attaching an engine to an asteroid and putting it on a collision course with Earth; Earth retaliates by sending ships to Mars to seize the top of the space elevator, and then uses lasers to detonate the oxygen-filled bubbles covering their cities.

    Gordon R. Dickson had a nice observation in his Dorsai books about space battle, how it only occurs by mutual consent since it involved two armadas showing up at the same time and the same place, in a way that couldn't happen without planning to fight at that moment. And when they did, it was all over in seconds because computerized weaponry targeted and fired everything all at once when the second to arrive showed up by dropping out of warp. All humans could do was plan it and then buckle up for it.
    posted by fatbird at 3:58 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


    EE Doc Smith's planet-destroying weapons and spaceships in the Lensman series are fun too.

    Ridding yourself of inertia is a pretty convenient first step to fun in space. Also, the death-ray that pulls the iron out of people's hemoglobin is also a great place to start.

    There's a very lengthy and detailed relativistic-speed space battle in Larry Niven's PROTECTOR.

    Yes. Years of boredom and then making a single shot. Plus all the tubers you can stomach. Niven's space battles are pretty hard-science as far as fiction goes although he skips all the energy density issues as everyone does. The #1 problem with space battles is that unless you have 100% efficient energy generation and transmission systems your ship heats up fast enough to kill you in short order.
    posted by GuyZero at 3:59 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


    Space combat would basically come down to who had the best combat AI, and the best drones in which to house that AI.

    Very true. Well, the AI would have to be in some armor or deep in the planet or hidden, likely victim to planet-cracking relativistic weapons. I guess it depends on the scale of the space war.
    posted by fuq at 4:01 PM on December 17, 2009


    Another vote for the space combat in Protector. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I rather love Niven's work in general.
    posted by Splunge at 4:04 PM on December 17, 2009


    GuyZero: Question: Why would anyone bother making manned fighters, though? The heat limits should be more like 'we don't want to melt the engines,' than 'we don't want the pilot to sweat to death.'
    posted by kaibutsu at 4:19 PM on December 17, 2009


    But don't you have to take out their shield generators first?
    posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:23 PM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


    Maybe I'm wrong but I like the way they handle Space Combat in the Honor Harrington series. The books are mostly great blatant space opera, but the space combat seems way more in line with potential reality than Star Wars.
    posted by MrBobaFett at 4:24 PM on December 17, 2009


    quin: I think a good director could make even that interesting. The thought of silent, cold death as your tiny ship is shredded by flak, decompressing in the middle of the enormity and emptiness of space, would make for one heck of a heart-stopping scene. Maybe not for a summer blockbuster, but certainly for a horror/sci-fi/thriller. Less Pearl Harbor and more Das Boot.

    Agreed. People have said similar things about "no sound in space", and yet look at what they did with Star Trek (as a prominent mainstream example). Done right, it's far more dramatic.
    posted by Durn Bronzefist at 4:25 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


    the subdued, two-dimensional naval combat in Star Trek,

    "He's intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two dimensional thinking."

    "Z minus 10,000 meters, Mr. Spock."
    posted by Ironmouth at 4:25 PM on December 17, 2009 [5 favorites]


    After watching Alien/Aliens I always loved the idea of acid based weapons... cause that shi*it was scary.
    posted by rosswald at 4:30 PM on December 17, 2009


    Uh-oh. I thought a lone Star Trek comment might be tolerated in here, but...

    Ironmouth -- if we don't battle to the death, they... will kill us both.
    posted by Durn Bronzefist at 4:30 PM on December 17, 2009


    ZERG RUSH
    posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:31 PM on December 17, 2009


    I got some fun answers on this Ask Me about nukes in space.
    posted by Artw at 4:36 PM on December 17, 2009


    Obviously what would happen is five or more smaller ships would merge to become one enormous mechahumanoid, which would then generate a plasma sword and, wielding it deftly, slice the enemy vessel in twain or thrix.
    posted by turgid dahlia at 4:47 PM on December 17, 2009 [6 favorites]


    All I've learned from space battles in EVE Online is don't fly Caldari missile boats. Transverse velocity my ass; by the time you're in position to fire some Minmatar rustbucket is chewing into your hull.

    I suck at PVP.
    posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:58 PM on December 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


    I always liked Babylon 5's battles, especially the thinking behind the way the Starfuries perform.

    Also David Gerrold's Star Wolf.
    posted by CarlRossi at 5:01 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


    I've always thought that small clusters of networked, remotely-controlled, inexpensive drones would be so much more effective at space combat than manned vehicles. Much like our space programs have discovered that it's cheaper and easier to send remotely controlled machines to go explore, I imagine that easily mass-produced and remotely controlled combat ships could be wielded much more effectively than craft that have to account for all the limitations that come with supporting human life on board.

    You would need just a power source, a chunk of memory and processing machinery buried in a sturdy core, some sort of external communications device, and whatever firepower is en vogue at the time. All communicating back and forth, making smaller corrections on the fly, with larger, more general orders coming from a remote source -- like a school of little mechanical fish with guns and bombs. If they're produced cheaply enough, then getting them back to base or just crashing them into the enemy as a last resort wouldn't be too much of a problem.

    Of course, this sort of goes against some deep-seated human need for Johnny space marine to come home triumphant and makes for crappy summer movies...
    posted by Avelwood at 5:03 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


    I have to disagree with one of his points. Lasers are right out, except maybe the little ones used to fry external sensors. The bigger ones would all produce way too much heat.

    Even the best research lasers right now are something like 30% efficient, which means that however much energy you put into your opponent's hull, you're putting more than twice as much into your own ship. Heat won't dissipate in a vacuum (much), so you'll cook yourself long before you do the same to your opponent.
    posted by echo target at 5:06 PM on December 17, 2009


    the subdued, two-dimensional naval combat in Star Trek,

    The subtle, two-dimensional naval combat in Master and Commander reminded me of Space Opera at times.
    posted by ovvl at 5:08 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


    I recall liking the space battles between the capital ships in the otherwise god-awful Wing Commander film.

    They gave a sense of mass and momentum, plus anything that fires broadsides makes my heart melt a bit.
    posted by generichuman at 5:19 PM on December 17, 2009


    I have to disagree with one of his points. Lasers are right out, except maybe the little ones used to fry external sensors. The bigger ones would all produce way too much heat.

    I seem to remember reading that it wasn't the heat from a particle weapon that did the damage, it was the force with which the particles hit the object.

    Can anyone confirm that, or am I going to need to go back through all the Tom Clancy novels I ever read looking for the photon-by-photon explanation?
    posted by Pragmatica at 5:20 PM on December 17, 2009


    A Martian revolt is interplanetary warfare and I'm the first person to mention The Moon is a Harsh Mistress?! What DO they teach in Nerd School these days?
    posted by DU at 5:20 PM on December 17, 2009 [7 favorites]


    I'm surprised no one has mentioned Jack Campbell's "lost fleet" series. It seems to be comprised almost entirely of space battles that try to take a lot of this stuff into account.
    posted by flaterik at 5:34 PM on December 17, 2009


    Maybe I'm wrong but I like the way they handle Space Combat in the Honor Harrington series. The books are mostly great blatant space opera, but the space combat seems way more in line with potential reality than Star Wars.

    Wait, what? Weber isn't even pretending to attempt to depict realistic space combat. He's explicitly doing Napoleonic sea battles in space, particularly in the first half of the series. Hell, they even call dreadnaughts "ships of the wall" (instead of "ships of the line") and fire broadsides and so on.
    posted by Justinian at 5:41 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


    Related: this old thread of mine (where Charlie Stross mocks me!*)

    *Incidentally, this is the second time I was mocked (I think wrongly) by a science fiction writer I admire. Way back as an undergrad, I contacted Bruce Sterling to ask him about written records kept by underground hacker communities. He wrote back, essentially, that hacker communities didn't have records because they were - duh- underground, and that I was dumb for asking the question.

    Thanks to fellow MeFite Jason Scott, however, among others, I was able to prove him wrong, and had a couple of academic papers published on the topic when I was a PhD student.

    Damn you science fiction writers, always telling me what is impossible!
    posted by blahblahblah at 5:52 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


    I seem to remember reading that it wasn't the heat from a particle weapon that did the damage, it was the force with which the particles hit the object.

    The "force" of a photon is so minute as to be effectively zero, only noticeable at the event horizon of a black hole. Other particle weapons are a different story, but I don't even know what those would be.

    I would expect creative use of kinetic impactors, eg. slugs made of chemical or nuclear waste (or anything your ship wants to get rid of), or corrosive/toxic/biological compounds. Or hungry bullets of grey goo. If radiation weapons were deployed they would target the weakest point of the ship: the crew. And therefore any ship would be extremely insulated (already gotta protect from cosmic radiation) and radiation weapons would be almost totally impractical. They would have a use for disabling sensors, though, to an extent.
    posted by mek at 6:03 PM on December 17, 2009


    Best space battles I've read were in Anvil of Stars, where it was mostly alien-trained humans flying "needle" fighters at relativistic speeds and big capital ships firing barrages of particles and energy from thousands of kilometres away. Often the humans were fighting against robot defenses of long-dead civilizations. It's the sequel to Forge of God, which takes place entirely on earth in the present day (circa late 80s).

    The book also has one of the more troubling moral quandaries I've seen in sci-fi at its climax. Highly recommended.
    posted by autodidact at 6:19 PM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


    Wouldn't kinetic weapons only work at long distances? Like if you're exploding flak everywhere, a) your own ship is fucked if you're too close, and b) you've basically salted the earth that region of space.

    I mean space is pretty big but if you had a large enough battle in orbit, you'd never be able to leave the planet again--cus you just made a ball bearing minefield?
    posted by danny the boy at 6:31 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


    sotonohito: Space combat would basically come down to who had the best combat AI, and the best drones in which to house that AI.

    I guess that depends on what comes first; space combat or computers that are better at combat than humans. In say, Battlestar Galactica , where really advanced AI isn't an option, than humans are going to be better pilots than the Commodore 64s they were using.

    If our space-avionics stays ahead of our AI; some form of human duel would be needed. But, of course, they could be controlled remotely, like today's Predator drones.
    posted by spaltavian at 6:34 PM on December 17, 2009


    Forever War had an interesting take on the logistics of war and diplomacy over interstellar distances. Even fighting with mars would take 6-9 months to send a reinforcement / supply ships. Imagine the logistical challenge of resupplying an expeditionary force at that distance. Then consider time dilation and other comminications issues if you went just a few light years out. Sending a few hundred thousand soldiers to Iraq coat a trillion dollar or more. Can you imagine the military budget needed to go to Mars?
    posted by humanfont at 6:35 PM on December 17, 2009


    It would take more than a couple battles to achieve that quantity of orbital debris - and if you are not fighting in orbit (which is probably best avoided for many other reasons), it's not a concern, because space is really, really, really big.

    Earth is already well on its way to having way too much space junk, though.
    posted by mek at 6:36 PM on December 17, 2009


    Easy: Manipulation of the space-time continuum so that the enemy ceases to exist in this universe.
    posted by wcfields at 6:44 PM on December 17, 2009


    Remote control is right out in space battles. Space is really friggin' big. The speed of light starts to matter. It takes over a second for light to get from the Earth to the moon. At anything but "close" range in space, direct control is going to have so much lag as to be untenable.

    There's also little sense in having AI controlled weaponry that isn't designed to crash into something, apart from "stationary" automatic defenses, as it takes 3-4 times as much fuel to stop, turn around, and come back--and probably stop on the return trip unless you have something fancy to decelerate you.

    So I'd envision, for the near future at least, human maintained craft with guided weaponry. Planet, moon, and asteroid base defenses would have the advantage of not having to worry as much about heat dissipation and have a tremendous advantage with energy weapons which, while they can be dodged by erratic maneuvering as it takes time for even light to reach a target at stellar distances, are going to be able to take out any ship that gets in with a couple of light seconds.

    In fact, if nuclear-pumped x-ray lasers are actually workable, a ship might be surrounded by a number of remote control 1-time use laser nukes that could take out any vessel that got in a light second or so.

    A light second is actually a really large distance so with any near-future technology it would take tens of minutes (at least) for guided weapons to traverse the distance. I'd imagine there'd be a lot of everyone dies battles. If things actually to firing.

    I'd imagine a lot of operation would merely be through intimidation--if the enemy fleet is large enough to shoot down all your missiles, and strategic maneuvering takes months, so many times I'd imagine one side would just surrender instead of bothering to fight.

    That of course depends on the efficacy of point defense versus guided weapons. If firepower is simply more efficient, everyone's going to lose.
    posted by Zalzidrax at 7:23 PM on December 17, 2009


    People sometimes make a big deal about weapons producing sound in space, and meanwhile the people are WALKING AROUND IN THE SHIP. I guess artificial gravity doesn't count towards "realness".
    posted by P.o.B. at 7:42 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


    well, some of us read books.
    posted by Artw at 7:58 PM on December 17, 2009


    Wait, what? Weber isn't even pretending to attempt to depict realistic space combat. He's explicitly doing Napoleonic sea battles in space, particularly in the first half of the series. Hell, they even call dreadnaughts "ships of the wall" (instead of "ships of the line") and fire broadsides and so on.

    Except with gravity wedges, and X-ray lasers, and hyper space. Yes it's like naval battle except for in 3 dimensions. And conducted over a vastly larger distance and way more sophisticated weapons.
    posted by MrBobaFett at 7:58 PM on December 17, 2009


    Though TV can be fun.
    posted by Artw at 8:00 PM on December 17, 2009


    wcfields: Manipulation of the space-time continuum so that the enemy ceases to exist in this universe.

    Don't you know that you don't violate causality in the Eschaton's historic light cone? Or else.
    posted by autopilot at 8:12 PM on December 17, 2009


    well, some of us read books.

    liar!
    posted by P.o.B. at 8:15 PM on December 17, 2009


    Spacewar lexicon
    posted by Artw at 8:18 PM on December 17, 2009


    autopilot has it right when he notes:
    For an attempt to make 3D space warfare playable, I enjoy Attack Vector Tactical. What other board games take into account:

    * 3D velocities and position
    * Newtonian physics
    * Moments of inertia in each axis
    * Thrust and mass ratios
    * Firing arcs
    * Heat buildup and radiation
    * Crew morale
    * Weapon spread patterns
    * Weapon propagation time


    The individuals who developed this product are some of the smartest folks you'll meet, including researches, folks who have worked on various space shots, etc. I tangentially participated in early development, and I can say you'd probably learn as much about the possibilities for real space combat physics from this simulation as anywhere else you might look. With that said, this article comes to many similar conclusions.
    posted by meinvt at 8:26 PM on December 17, 2009


    Even the best research lasers right now are something like 30% efficient, which means that however much energy you put into your opponent's hull, you're putting more than twice as much into your own ship. Heat won't dissipate in a vacuum (much), so you'll cook yourself long before you do the same to your opponent.
    posted by echo target

    It is possible to dissipate heat in space--through radiation rather than convection (otherwise all our satellites would have burned up long ago). And you can even absorb the heat by doing something with it, like using it to melt something.

    In any case, airborne laser weapons exist and I'm pretty sure the aircraft isn't absorbing or dissipating 30% of its firepower.
    posted by eye of newt at 8:42 PM on December 17, 2009


    Remote control is right out in space battles. Space is really friggin' big. The speed of light starts to matter. It takes over a second for light to get from the Earth to the moon. At anything but "close" range in space, direct control is going to have so much lag as to be untenable.

    Depends on what scales you're fighting at. If we have space combat before we get anywhere close to travel at a significant percentage of c, then the combatants are going to have to close at distances where signal delay isn't going to be a big deal. If we're firing projectiles, then we'll be fighting a distances much less than the distance from the Earth to the moon. If we're using lasers; then the delay would probably be too much.

    The Next Hundred Years laid out a realistic scenario of space warfare, with a Pearl Harbor-like scenario. Very, very small rockets are placed onto small bits of space debris. These are remotely controlled, perhaps from a manned moon-base, with very small amounts of thrust, going rather slowly. The rocks would be positioned over the course of a month or so, and would look like regular, random bits of space junk. When they get close enough; they rockets are fired all the way, and would be crashed into the surveillance satellites and space stations of the enemy. This would temporarily blind the enemy, who'd lose it's real-time space network. They wouldn't be able to see the fleet of unmanned, hypersonic bombers coming across the ocean, which would target military aircraft installations rather than cities.
    posted by spaltavian at 8:42 PM on December 17, 2009


    I kind of want to play a computergame version of Attack Vector Tactical now, possibly in an 80s style.
    posted by Artw at 8:49 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


    Remote control is right out in space battles. Space is really friggin' big. The speed of light starts to matter. It takes over a second for light to get from the Earth to the moon. At anything but "close" range in space, direct control is going to have so much lag as to be untenable.

    Strange attractors?
    posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:59 PM on December 17, 2009


    Wait, what? Weber isn't even pretending to attempt to depict realistic space combat. He's explicitly doing Napoleonic sea battles in space, particularly in the first half of the series. Hell, they even call dreadnaughts "ships of the wall" (instead of "ships of the line") and fire broadsides and so on.

    Except with gravity wedges, and X-ray lasers, and hyper space.


    And lots and lots of talk about velocities. I always like the space warfare in Walter Jon Williams' "Dread Empire's Fall" series.
    posted by MikeMc at 8:59 PM on December 17, 2009


    Diaspora is a hard-ish sci-fi rpg that takes into account reaction mass, maximum velocity, heat buildup and crew morale, in a fairly non-crunchy way.

    It does cheat in that the star systems have wormholes for inter-system travel, but at least the destinations are set- you can't just jump here or there. It also limits the number of connected systems to a closed number of 6-10, so you have a closed economy of star systems with different tech and culture levels, and all the problems that come from that...
    posted by yeloson at 9:05 PM on December 17, 2009


    Since we're talking RPGs Transhuman Space has some pretty cool sourcebooks.
    posted by Artw at 9:27 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


    CarlRossi beat me to it, but yeah, I thought Babylon 5 did a pretty solid job on small fighter combat: thrusters mounted on corners that could fire either forward or backwards, allowing for very quick reversals (I know nothing about the G-forces that would be involved in that), with very little of the WWII/Top Gun banking and chasing that happens when you're in an atmosphere.
    posted by Ghidorah at 9:32 PM on December 17, 2009


    Space combat would basically come down to who had the best combat AI, and the best drones in which to house that AI.

    Or, which side had Ender Wiggin ...

    The thought that always comes to mind when a SPACE WAR conversation tries to get serious is that little aside in Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy where some alien civilization a gazillion light years from earth declares war on us for some imagined slight. They attack us with everything they've got, a huge armada sent across space ... except they disastrously miscalculate scale and the entire armada gets swallowed by a family dog somewhere in the mid west (or perhaps the Midlands).
    posted by philip-random at 9:41 PM on December 17, 2009


    I guess that depends on what comes first; space combat or computers that are better at combat than humans. In say, Battlestar Galactica , where really advanced AI isn't an option, than humans are going to be better pilots than the Commodore 64s they were using.

    Oh man, for the early days of NuBSG when the Cylons were an implacable, unbeatable AI foe. I really liked that they were such an incredibly deadly electronic warfare threat that giving them a hnt of an opening into your networked systems would mean they'd be overun and subverted near instantaneously.

    Then they went kind of soft, and we had all kinds of silly shit instead.
    posted by Artw at 9:49 PM on December 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


    There was a short story about two tiny ion-drive propelled ships chasing one another throughout the centuries, one trying to assimilate the other. The chased (the last free mind in the galaxy) applied microscopic course corrections until it was caught ... at which time it planted a logic bomb in its memory ... what was that?
    posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:49 PM on December 17, 2009


    Oh man, Shattered Horizons looks like a lot of fun... on the other hand it's online multiplayer only, and if that doesn;t mean endless empty servers it'll mean servers full of teenage jerks who've memorised every lasts inch of every map and who get shirty with anyone who hasn't basically devoted their life to FPSing to their required level.
    posted by Artw at 9:53 PM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


    It doesn’t have a name, rank, or serial number. There’s nothing like it in the known universe. It’s unique. The sole example of a class defined entirely by what it is and what it does. A superbad big space robot, bigger than an asteroid, smaller than a moon. A self-aware, heavily-armed killer machine on a mission of no return, seeking out the enemy wherever the enemy may be hiding and destroying every last trace of the motherfuckers. It’s a midnight rambler. Sooner or later it’ll be coming to the star next door to you, and it will rock your world.

    Back at the beginning, most of the jobs were mostly the same. The big space robot would roll in on some warm yellow star buzzing with the irritating mosquito-whine of civilisation and wake up its four subselves. Izzy whizzy, let’s get busy. Let’s get down and dirty. Librarian and Philosopher would map the system and intercept and analyse every byte of captured information and compare it to previous missions; Navigator and Tactician would use the intel to select targets and drop a bunch of rocks on them and spawn a few thousand killer drones to mop up any residual resistance.

    Resistance is always useless.


    Little Lost Robot

    (No, not the Asimov one)
    posted by Artw at 9:57 PM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


    I seem to remember reading that it wasn't the heat from a particle weapon that did the damage, it was the force with which the particles hit the object.
    That sounds like a garbled version of what I seem to remember reading, which is that the notion is that the laser vaporizes a surface layer, which expands violently, and the resulting force applied to the target is what does the damage. I think this scenario is motivated by the fact that hot gases tend to mess with your laser beam: if they're hot enough to be a plasma, they absorb and scatter the beam; even if not, the temperature gradient causes a refractive index gradient which defocuses your beam (this is called thermal blooming). It might also be that firing a series of pulses to produce shockwaves in the target is more effectieve at causing damage than a sustained lower-power beam acting like a laser cutter.
    posted by hattifattener at 10:04 PM on December 17, 2009


    Sounds like you're after a neutral beam weapon.
    posted by Artw at 10:05 PM on December 17, 2009


    Ever since True Names I like to imagine what it might mean if Mr. Slippery and Erythrina were right in their first hypothesis about The Mailman. If the Mailman (men?) attacked computer networks first because that was easy from afar, what would their close range attacks look like? When I play this game nowadays I get something that looks a bit like Call of Cthulhu meets Childhood's End. Vinge himself does pretty good in A Deepness in the Sky. But of course, there's also The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch with it's alien invasion from inner space. We're not just mortal, we're hackable. If the enemy recognizes us at all, that's certainly going to be one of the most important attack vectors.
    posted by wobh at 10:11 PM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


    I loved the twist at the end of Ian Banks' The Algebraist, which was definitely away from the space opera end of the spectrum.

    I always liked Babylon 5's battles, especially the thinking behind the way the Starfuries perform.

    Ahh, Babylon 5. How I love thee.

    (Also, if we engaged an alien race in space war, there's a good chance that Minbari vs Humans or Shadows vs Narn is exactly what it would look like. A big ol' massacre.)
    posted by rodgerd at 10:14 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


    (Also, my favourite sci-fi weapon is still Traveller's meson guns).
    posted by rodgerd at 10:15 PM on December 17, 2009


    Except with gravity wedges, and X-ray lasers, and hyper space.

    And the missile warheads themselves actually being nuclear bomb powered one-shot lasers. Crazily enough that concept was thought up by Edward Teller for Star Wars. The Ronnie Reagan one, not the George Lucas one.

    "Teller realized that the laser mechanism itself didn't need to survive for long past the point of ignition, if the power output was high enough. Also, the higher the frequency of the beam, the higher its power. There were no methods at the time of generating higher frequency laser beams that didn't require large installations, but Teller's fertile imagination came up with one.

    Why not use an atomic bomb?"
    posted by barc0001 at 10:24 PM on December 17, 2009


    Here is another god ask me about space combat.

    In my opinion, guided missiles are going to be the number one weapon in space especially at relativistic speeds. They can be self propelled which means they don't screw up the trajectory of the ship that fired them and they can't be easily dodged so even if they miss they make the target use up vital fuel.

    Space war would basically be a logistics game about who could get the most missiles up without running out of fuel first.
    posted by afu at 11:11 PM on December 17, 2009


    Here is an allegedly very bad AskMe about eating snacks in space.
    posted by Artw at 11:25 PM on December 17, 2009


    There was a short story about two tiny ion-drive propelled ships chasing one another

    One of the stories in ZIMA BLUE by Alastair Reynolds?
    posted by alasdair at 11:51 PM on December 17, 2009


    There's a nice near-lightspeed chase in Redemption Ark, with the fleeing ship dropping huge molecule thin solar sails into the wake of it's pursuer.
    posted by Artw at 11:56 PM on December 17, 2009


    There used to be a huge set of web pages on this topic, which I think span out of discussions on rec.arts.sf.written. They probably involved James Nicoll as well...

    Unfortunately I can't find them!

    One of the main points though, was that it's very difficult to hide in space if you want to actually do anything using known technology. Whatever you do, you're going to have to dump the excess heat somehow and infrared telescopes will pick up the resultant black body radiation.
    posted by pharm at 1:40 AM on December 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


    Build a von Neumann probe, release, wait until massively self-replicated, respond to any threat by swarming and trying a range of attacks that has been effective against whatever you've detected in the past?

    Immune response looks pretty effective (we're still here after all), so it's probably a pretty good intrusion detection and elimination model to start from.
    posted by snarfodox at 2:57 AM on December 18, 2009


    There was a story I read awhile ago (the name of which is failing me) that suggested the easiest way to fight a space battle was with BBs.

    After all, you'll be able to see an enemy ship approaching from days out and maneuvering is incredibly difficult, so it's hard to get out of the way. Since your own ship is already presumably up to speed, all you have to do is release a cloud of ball bearings in front of you and then slow down a little bit. Bearings keep going, and at the speeds that interplanetary ships would be going they would tear an enemy to pieces.
    posted by backseatpilot at 5:11 AM on December 18, 2009


    I was on the verge of making this an AskMe the other day! I've always wondered what was supposed to happen to missed laser/bullet shots in scifi movies.
    posted by molecicco at 5:34 AM on December 18, 2009


    If it was humans vs humans (the Mars vs Earth example), then I could see a scenario where each ship tries to hack the other's systems. I mean, the ships themselves are really expensive technology so you wouldn't want to explode them, so why not keep a few dozen hackers in suspended animation and unleash them when you get near your foe? It would be the next stage after the AI drones - why have them fight it out when you could fight for control of the drones? Why try to control the drones when you could just control the ship that controls them?

    Besides that, when it comes to space combat, I want Warhammer 40k. I mean, if you're going to be so impractical as to fight in space, you might as well go all out and make flying cathedrals and ships with giant spikes on the front for ramming.
    posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:23 AM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


    robocop is bleeding Of course there is a simple anti-hacking technique. Instruct your drone not to accept outside input once its been targeted and activated. The downside, of course, is that if the enemy surrenders before the drone kills them there's nothing you can do.

    fuq Actually I was thinking of embedded AI in the drones. And using "AI" to mean "various combat algorithms", not true AI.

    spaltavian wrote I guess that depends on what comes first; space combat or computers that are better at combat than humans. [...] If our space-avionics stays ahead of our AI; some form of human duel would be needed.

    I'm fairly sure that with off the shelf computers and a bit of modern day programming you could build an "AI" that could do well enough, when coupled with the advantages of better performance, more space for weapons, ECM/ECCM, lower signature, etc that it would be able to defeat a human manned ship.

    The big issue, to my way of thinking, is that humans can't stand much acceleration, they need a **LOT** of room and life support, and both we and our life support produce a lot of heat. That means any manned ship is going to be slower, a more obvious target, and by necessity have less space devoted to fuel/weapons/etc.

    Human creativity and out of the box thinking are good things, no question, but I don't see how they could be decisive against all the physical advantages an unmanned ship would have. When your enemy can hide better, outfly you, and out shoot you I don't think the fact that you can think better will help all that much.
    posted by sotonohito at 8:22 AM on December 18, 2009


    I'm fairly sure that with off the shelf computers and a bit of modern day programming you could build an "AI" that could do well enough,

    In the future, space war is waged by bolting a directional rocket to old beige Gateways and HPs and firing it off to mars/earth at relativistic speed.

    Also: "relativistic kill" is the new name of my non-existent thrashjazz band.
    posted by fuq at 8:48 AM on December 18, 2009


    Actually I was thinking of embedded AI in the drones. And using "AI" to mean "various combat algorithms", not true AI.

    Somewhere around here I have a short story I started about a kind of missile that used a simple AI and the way it was convinced to seek the target was that it was madly in love, and the only way they could be together was by chasing the target down and embracing it.

    IIRC it was narrated from the perspective of the weapon itself.
    posted by quin at 8:59 AM on December 18, 2009


    GuyZero: Question: Why would anyone bother making manned fighters, though? The heat limits should be more like 'we don't want to melt the engines,' than 'we don't want the pilot to sweat to death.'

    Because it looks cool? I think everyone can pretty much agree that the manned fighter trope in sci fi is because it works as a plot device and looks cool, not because it is actually practical.

    It is possible to dissipate heat in space--through radiation rather than convection (otherwise all our satellites would have burned up long ago). And you can even absorb the heat by doing something with it, like using it to melt something.

    Dissipation via radiation is possible but you need a looooooooooooot of surface area. And hope that your radiator vanes never accidentally get turned at a star and start absorbing photons instead of shedding them.

    And using the heat to melt something is basically reversing thermodynamics. You can "concentrate" heat but that requires compressors and motors and stuff and those run at less than 100% efficiency so you end up generating heat to try to get rid of heat which is usually a losing proposition.

    Never underestimate how much heat you can dump into the atmosphere. You may not be able to dump it all at once but you can dump it continuously so that eventually everything goes back to 20 deg C. In space that just ain't on. In a spaceship if you burn a log, your temperature goes up forever. OK, for a really long time as you will radiate the heat away very slowly.

    But heat loss or lack thereof is the #1 killer when you crunch the numbers for literally every sci-fi spaceship configuration. Thermodynamics is a harsh mistress.
    posted by GuyZero at 9:32 AM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


    Somewhere around here I have a short story I started about a kind of missile that used a simple AI and the way it was convinced to seek the target was that it was madly in love, and the only way they could be together was by chasing the target down and embracing it.

    In "The Soft Weapon" by Niven the Slaver super-gun tricks the user into activating the self-destruct sequence if it falls into enemy hands.
    posted by GuyZero at 9:34 AM on December 18, 2009


    The thought of silent, cold death as your tiny ship is shredded by flak, decompressing in the middle of the enormity and emptiness of space, would make for one heck of a heart-stopping scene. Maybe not for a summer blockbuster, but certainly for a horror/sci-fi/thriller. Less Pearl Harbor and more Das Boot.

    I think Das Boot and other suspenseful sub movies are a good representation of how a space battle would go down. It would be like submarine combat in the deep ocean at ludicrous speed. The ships can move in any direction. Damage to the hull is instant death unless to can seal it or find a airtight compartment. Strategies would rely heavily on extremely sensitive sensors, stealth and decoys. If your opponent gets a firing solution you are screwed. That's another reason why lasers might be a bad idea. The heat signature would be huge and reveal your position. It think ships would spend a lot of time and energy minimizing any electromagnetic waves that leave the hull.
    posted by Procloeon at 9:39 AM on December 18, 2009


    Because it looks cool? I think everyone can pretty much agree that the manned fighter trope in sci fi is because it works as a plot device and looks cool, not because it is actually practical.

    Drones could look pretty damn cool. I just think it's a matter of engaging the viewer's sense of risk -- losing pilots (even as placeholders) is an entirely different proposition than losing X resources you put into manufacturing these drones.
    posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:19 AM on December 18, 2009


    But heat loss or lack thereof is the #1 killer when you crunch the numbers for literally every sci-fi spaceship configuration. Thermodynamics is a harsh mistress.

    That's why one of the Star Wars (the program, not the movie) laser proposals involved chemical lasers that vented the post-lasing reactants for cooling. Of course that means you only have as many shots as you have stored reactants, but on the other hand the people using drones will also have to pay for their mass. For lasers probably more important than heat management will be the lensing arrangement since that will determine the lasers kill range. Depending on that, lasers will either be unused, used only as defensive weapons, be main weapons, or make spaceship-based combat impossible (one fairly well-researched and thought-out idea involved asteroid-based X-ray lasers with a range of AUs. Therefore there were no real combat spaceships, just orbiting weapons emplacements).

    One thing that came out clearly in the debates on space combat, is that even with the same rigidity in the laws of physics (I,e. No magic tech) there's plenty of room for differing base assumptions that lead to very different scenarios. It really depends on how well one thinks certain technologies will develop. This leads to threads in usenet with hundreds or thousands of posts as people debate which is a more likely future.
    posted by happyroach at 10:25 AM on December 18, 2009


    Of course that means you only have as many shots as you have stored reactants

    Neither books nor movies count shots - except for that bit at the end of Dirty Harry. They usually have magic power weapons where the magic zero-heat-generating power source creates an infinite number of shots. Convenient plot device, not so realistic.

    Having limited shots makes space combat a pretty rare proposition as everyone fires of there X shots and then has nothing to do for weeks until the supply ships arrive.

    there's plenty of room for differing base assumptions that lead to very different scenarios

    Even with magic tech this is still the case. Authors chose their magic tool and then go from there.

    Drones could look pretty damn cool.

    Those devolve pretty quickly to kinetic kill weapons. Why build a drone with a gun that's going to killed when you could just skip the gun and ram the drone into your enemy? Using enormous crowbars as a military weapons is effective but not very exciting.
    posted by GuyZero at 10:32 AM on December 18, 2009


    Well, that might be the last thing the drone does.

    Since you mention crowbars... I'm reminded of the (strictly atmospheric) Project Pluto - every aspect of it was deadly - it'd scream over your territory spewing radiation everywhere, drop bombs and then finally plow itself into a target. That concept was awesome crazy.
    posted by Artw at 11:10 AM on December 18, 2009


    oh also, since I'm being curmudgeonly...

    otherwise all our satellites would have burned up long ago

    Satellites tackle the power problem the same way mobile phones do: they're designed to use a little as possible to do their thing. They also tend to use solar power which doesn't generate a lot of hear. Internally their power systems are pretty efficient and the little heat they generate is probably useful to keep the electronics in a better operating range. When they're not being baked by the sun that is.

    Sci-fi ships are pretty luxurious by power consumption standards. Even Battlestar Galactica, described as "rag-tag" is pretty nice compared to the ISS or the sub in Das Boot. And where the frack does that all gravity come from?
    posted by GuyZero at 12:35 PM on December 18, 2009


    it'd scream over your territory spewing radiation everywhere, drop bombs and then finally plow itself into a target

    Sometimes ideas are rejected for being too good.
    posted by GuyZero at 12:36 PM on December 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


    Take out the humans and a ship can burn harder and thus get more out of its limited fuel.

    Take out the life support for the humans and the ship can cram in more fuel, weapons, sensors, etc.


    Add in automated construction facilities and you have space faring war machines which can go on fighting for aeons after the human race becomes extinct...
    posted by robertc at 3:14 PM on December 18, 2009


    I remember Harry Harrison's Star World had a fairly interesting/realistic attitude to space battle in that (from my sketchy memory) the good guy / admiral just throws scrap in front of where he knows the bad guy's fleet is going to be
    posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:17 PM on December 18, 2009


    For what it's worth, here's the information I got from watching extended debates between engineering and physics types on usenet:

    1) Stealth in space, while not completely impossible, is so difficult, limited and easily countered that it's not really worth the effort.

    2) Any spacecraft of a reasonable size can be spotted at a range of a couple astronomical units; if the motors are working, it's detectable at tens of AUs away. So surprise engagements are unlikely.

    3) Acceleration is far less important than Delta-V (the ability to change one's overall velocity); low acceleration, high-efficiency drives are actually better for combat.

    4) In an orbital battle, whichever spacecraft has the higher delta-v controls if, when, or where the combat will take place.

    5) All other things being equal, size = greater efficiency. Mass/volume ratios means that contrary to common sense, larger spacecraft will have better performance than smaller ones.

    I've found one of the biggest failings people have in imagining space combat is to try to model it on some form of Earth warfare. Space combat won't be anything like carrier, or ship of the line, or submarine or any other type of Earthly combat. To look at it otherwise is rather like trying to model aerial combat in terms of pike squares and shield walls.
    posted by happyroach at 3:41 PM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


    Add in automated construction facilities and you have space faring war machines which can go on fighting for aeons after the human race becomes extinct...

    Although Fred Saberhagen will still be getting royalties.
    posted by GuyZero at 3:49 PM on December 18, 2009


    Some of the things being said here I can get behind, but I have objections to a couple of others.

    (1) Hacking space ships: Whether they are independent drones, remote controlled or piloted by humans, I don't think this is any more realistic than hacking a modern day battleship. It's not like ships are going to have open-source compliant remote control services. We'll always have encryption, unless quantum computers deliver on the possibility that they might be able to circumvent modern encryption. In which case, I expect new forms of quantum encryption via "teleportation".

    (2) Speaking of which, remote control of warships could be feasible over astronomical scale distances via quantum entanglement. At least, that's my layman's pop-science take.

    (3) Speaking of the scale of battle, I disagree with those who say it is hard to dodge things in space. Missiles, maybe, but not projectiles. If a projectile is aimed at a ship that is 10 light seconds away, even if the projectile is moving at relativistic speeds, it's going to take more than 10 seconds to arrive. Given this scale, it might be pretty hard to hit the target even if it makes no course corrections. The slightest deviation from the correct direction to point the gun is massively amplified at such scales. Even the vibration of the engines could throw if off. Considering that, a little evasive action could even throw off laser fire over multiple light seconds.

    (4) If guns ARE accurate enough to hit at those distances, then your missiles will never get close enough to deliver their payloads. It makes more sense for your missile/drone to just get close, and fire a bomb-pumped laser. Another option is to launch a tiny missile at relativistic speeds, which makes course corrections on the final approach.

    (5) The question of the scale of space combat comes down to three things: detection range, velocity and weapon range. It has been said elsewhere, but unless we're using some radical new technologies, you should be able to see another ship coming for quite some time...we're talking about partway across the solar system, if it's thrusting at 1G or so. Weapon range is a lot more variable, but it is fair to say that at sufficient distances, dumb projectiles (including laser beams) just don't have a chance. You can basically treat missiles themselves as really small ships. If projectile guns are accurate enough at long ranges, then missiles will not be able to get close enough to do any damage except via their own cannons, which means we should consider them to be drones or fighters. In summary, I think actual combat range would be a few light seconds apart, and only relativistic guns would be worth anything except perhaps for point defense.

    As for the factor of ship velocity, the role that this plays is going to vary. Imagine two ships passing each other, at a distance of about 100k km at the closest point. If they are moving fast enough, there might only be a chance for a couple of exchanges if they are moving fast enough (relative to each other). If both ships are nearly matched in terms of velocity, then it will probably not to be a significant factor during the scope of a single encounter. My point is that velocity is the product of acceleration, and considering the kind of velocity you can build up over a few days of thrust, what you do within the minutes (or hours, even) of conflict won't be as important as the head of steam you built up in the preceding period.

    (6) Ball bearings are just not going to work at these ranges. A cloud of ball bearings over a few million cubic kilometers is going to be pretty spread out, and it will be tricky to make sure you are in your enemy's flight path. Here's what I think would be an ideal projectile weapon for space: a tiny pebble of antimatter fired from a coil gun. I wouldn't necessarily trust an ordinary piece of junk, although my physics is weak in this manner. It might have tremendous kinetic energy, but would it dump it all into the target? I think there's a good chance it would just slice right through the ship and keep on going. Antimatter, though, has literally the biggest bang for its mass (E = mc^2). Of course, antimatter is not easy to store safely, but I wouldn't be surprised if, at some point, ships use it for reactor fuel. In which case, you just have to borrow a little from the reactor core... As an added bonus, the damage to the target is way out of proportion with the amount of heat generated by its launch.

    (7) Dissipating heat does sound like a serious issue. I would think that one solution would be to simply vent your coolant. Use the coolant to absorb the heat, then shoot it out into space. You'd have to make sure that you had enough coolant to match your ammunition before setting forth, and it would probably have to be pretty advanced stuff to be practical for its mass. However, we're talking about the future, right? The other option is, as mentioned, the one-shot disposable drone. In such cases, heat ceases to be an issue. Still, if heat is such an issue, then aren't the engines and reactor even bigger problems?

    (8) Would armor be useful? I'd say "yes" against lasers, and "no" for most other things. For ball-bearing type projectiles, it might actually hurt, if you would rather it slice through without dumping its kinetic energy. In the quest to minimize mass, it might just be best to drop armor altogether. I suspect that most weapons that did deposit all their energy in the target would annihilate anything with less than several meters of armoring.

    (9) What about particle weapons? Someone mentioned the meson guns from Traveler, which were awesome and exotic. The problem with particle weapons is keeping the stream coherent. If you're firing a beam that consists entirely of one sort of particle, unless they are neutrons, they will probably repel each other. Neutrons would be nice, but it's pretty hard to motivate an uncharged particle. But then again, future technologies might find solutions to this. Personally, I think it would be great fun to dissolve an enemy hull with the equivalent of a proton firehose.

    In short, I think relativistic weapons would rule the day, and missiles that actually detonate themselves or try to collide with a target will not be so effective. Small interceptors with one-shot weapons, on the other hand, could serve a very useful role. Since detection ranges are so great, manned ships could participate in battle just by carrying and launching such drones. After all, manned ships will want to have some means of defense. Capital ships would be launch platforms and targets, not direct participants. They would be so outclassed in maneuverability by interceptors, I doubt it would matter whether or not they were manned. Capital ship guns would be mostly for engaging enemy interceptors, not enemy capital ships. Interceptors would be much more efficient fighters; they don't even have to carry enough fuel for a return trip. If you win, you can scoop em up, and if you don't, you've got bigger problems than stranded drones.
    posted by Edgewise at 4:44 PM on December 18, 2009


    However, we're talking about the future, right?

    I'd bet on thermodynamics rather than against it, but that's just me.

    What about particle weapons? Someone mentioned the meson guns from Traveler, which were awesome and exotic.

    So, being a huge Traveller nerd, meson guns are indeed awesome. However:

    1) their basis in actual particle physics is dubious at best
    2) as written in the books (High Guard and its descendants) they require a LOT of power which gets us back to the heat issue. Traveller pre-supposes free energy via cheap fusion which is great but again, TANSTAAFL on getting rid of waste heat in space. To be fair, I got the entire waste heat thing from the Traveller Mailing List. (hello boys!)

    Traveller's version of space combat is fun and very mid-19th-century Naval but not necessarily any more realistic than anyone else's vision of space combat.
    posted by GuyZero at 4:59 PM on December 18, 2009


    (6) Ball bearings are just not going to work at these ranges. A cloud of ball bearings over a few million cubic kilometers is going to be pretty spread out, and it will be tricky to make sure you are in your enemy's flight path. Here's what I think would be an ideal projectile weapon for space: a tiny pebble of antimatter fired from a coil gun.
    1: Why is a pebble of antimatter more likely to hit your target than a bb is?
    2: This ignores the "relativistic" aspect of relativistic kinetic-kill weapons. At 86%c, the KE of the ball bearing is equal to its rest mass— getting hit by that is equivalent to getting hit by a slow-moving antimatter bb. At 99%c, the KE of the bb dwarfs its rest mass; it really doesn't make a difference whether it's made of antimatter or matter, you're getting a cone of your ship turned into plasma and xrays either way.
    (2) Speaking of which, remote control of warships could be feasible over astronomical scale distances via quantum entanglement. At least, that's my layman's pop-science take.
    You can't use quantum entanglement to transfer actual information FTL. You can use it to create correlations FTL, which is useful for cryptography, but if you want to communicate you still need a classical communications channel alongside the entanglement channel.
    I've found one of the biggest failings people have in imagining space combat is to try to model it on some form of Earth warfare.
    I think this is true in spades. Whatever space warfare turns out to be, it will probably bear as much resemblance to the 20th-century battles we're analogizing to as the invasion of Iraq did to a American Civil War engagement.
    posted by hattifattener at 7:50 PM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


    Some hours of my life were phase-pulse cannoned into oblivion by Atomic Rockets.
    Merci.
    posted by ovvl at 3:02 PM on December 20, 2009


    2) as written in the books (High Guard and its descendants) they require a LOT of power which gets us back to the heat issue. Traveller pre-supposes free energy via cheap fusion which is great but again, TANSTAAFL on getting rid of waste heat in space. To be fair, I got the entire waste heat thing from the Traveller Mailing List. (hello boys!)

    It doesn't ignore it entirely, IIRC, although I'd have to dig out High Guard to be sure. Aren't the limiting factors on shield in the Traveller universe that you can't do anything with them up because no energy in = no energy out?
    posted by rodgerd at 12:52 AM on December 23, 2009


    Traveller has no shields, at least in the classic version.

    There are sandcasters which blast out reflective chaff to counteract laser fire and there are repulsors which use anti-gravity to deflect missiles.

    There are "black globes" which are recovered Ancient artifacts which surround the ship with a field that absorbs all energy. Awesome! Unfortunately they're bi-directional - you can't fire out either. So most ships duty-cycle them and sync laser fire with when the shield is down, somewhat akin to WWI biplanes whose guns were synced to the prop so pilots didn't shoot their own propellers off. So I guess you're right in that sense, though from a game POV black globes are relatively rare. super-high-tech navies only.

    And then the other issue is that any energy absorbed by the black globe is actually absorbed and has to be put into capacitor/jump crystal banks. So there's a limit to how much fire you can absorb before you have to dump the power or blow up.

    I forgot one of my neighbour's names yesterday but this I can remember in great detail from when I played a decade ago. *sigh*
    posted by GuyZero at 9:23 AM on December 23, 2009


    There are "black globes" which are recovered Ancient artifacts which surround the ship with a field that absorbs all energy.


    Those are the ones I'm thinking of. And, indeed, they pay attention to some aspects of real physics, as you note.

    I liked the tactic outlined in High Guard where black globe equipped navies would jump in system, set a course, raise the globes, and use momentum to cruise into engagement range without being detected.
    posted by rodgerd at 10:22 AM on December 27, 2009


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