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PhD Candidate Talks About the Physics of Space Battles

samzenpus posted more than 4 years ago | from the load-photon-torpedoes dept.

Sci-Fi 361

darthvader100 writes "Gizmodo has run an article with some predictions on what future space battles will be like. The author brings up several theories on propulsion (and orbits), weapons (explosives, kinetic and laser), and design. Sounds like the ideal shape for spaceships will be spherical, like the one in the Hitchhiker's Guide movie."

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361 comments

round round, I git around (5, Funny)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477356)

Sounds like the ideal shape for spaceships will be spherical

That'll be boring: round ships, round planets, round explosions, and round movie goers.
   

Re:round round, I git around (2)

skelterjohn (1389343) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477438)

Won't they want to be able to have a small profile?

Seems like some sort of lozenge shape would work best for this.

Re:round round, I git around (1)

ByOhTek (1181381) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477764)

that or a disc, with weapons mounted on extensions that can be popped out to fire (or, if self propelled, don't need to be initially fired at the opponents ship)

Re:round round, I git around (5, Interesting)

c6gunner (950153) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477962)

The problem is that reducing the profile in one direction means you have to make it larger in a different dimension. Now, that's not much of a problem when you're fighting 2D land-battles, but zero-gravity gives you the ultimate 3D battle-space. If your enemy is smart enough to put one fleet directly in front of you while having another flank from the top or bottom, all you've done is make your ships easier to hit.

If you're looking at it purely from the perspective of presenting the smallest profile possible, your best bet would be a needle-shape. Very long, and as thin as possible. However, that runs into other problems, such as maneuverability.

Re:round round, I git around (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30478706)

You'd actually need to attack from 3 very different directions for a saucer shape to be a liability. From any two directions, you can orient your ship so both attackers are on the plane of your lowest profile.

Plus, large surface area in one direction confers a key advantage- more space to mount weapons. A saucer-shaped ship would have the flexibility of being able to offer both a broadside of heavy fire or a small target to any given enemy position.

Re:round round, I git around (1)

berwiki (989827) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478034)

Don't worry, 'ideal' is identical to 'theoretical' in my mind.

Pretty much everything should perform better and/or look good. But in my experience, it always falls short.

Re:round round, I git around (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30478040)

Sounds like a mathematician/physicist's dream.

Re:round round, I git around (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30478098)

Well, at least it's consistent with the spherical cow the physicists are always asking us to consider.

Re:round round, I git around (2, Insightful)

Z00L00K (682162) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478594)

It also depends on the size and if it's going to be a new way of creating artificial gravity aside from spinning the ship.

Space battles wold be much like battles between submarines.

And then - there may be other reasons to not have spherical ships - like requirements for propulsion. It may be easier to keep the engine away from the habitation part than to have a lot of heavy shielding.

Round ships? (2, Informative)

Duhavid (677874) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477442)

"Sounds like the ideal shape for spaceships will be spherical, like the one in the Hitchhiker's Guide movie"

Or maybe like Doc Smith predicted in the Lensman Series?

Re:Round ships? (1)

dpilot (134227) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477558)

I was thinking of Doc Smith, wondering if for some real, technical reason the logical spherical shape would give way to the "teardrop-shaped superdreadnaught".

But I guess if you're on Skylark instead of Lensman, I, II, and Valeron were all spherical, only III was cylindrical.

Re:Round ships? (1)

Chyeld (713439) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478350)

I would imagine that there are things that you don't want sitting as close to your centrally located "super gyroscope+power plant+fuel cells" as a sphere would dictate. Possibly radiation/interference issues with things things like sensors or communications.

While you could compensate by making a bigger sphere, if your 'required distance' is small enough, it's easier just to shove it out as an extension.

Re:Round ships? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30478418)

Doc Smith has it right about the shape but not the tactics, Peter Hamilton makes a more realistic use of orbital mechanics, energy dissipation, heat exchange, etc.. The shady part is living starships, FTL spetialy with the Lady Mac in Lalonde and Morora and Zero Tau (time suspention) but as there are teories about it...

C.J. Cherryh has the most realistic handling (2, Interesting)

WillAdams (45638) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477452)

that I've found thus far in her Merchanter / Alliance-Union books ---esp. Heavy Time / Hellburner --- though I'd be very interested in suggestions on other authors to read who've put forth a similar effort to have realistic physics and effects thereof.

William

Re:C.J. Cherryh has the most realistic handling (3, Interesting)

Chris Burke (6130) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477902)

I thought Neal Stephenson's Gap series had very good handling of space battles. Outside of lasers the weapons were pure fantasy physics, but the battle tactics that resulted from them were pretty realistic. Battles took place at distances on the order of light-minutes, such that your knowledge of the enemy ship's position was perhaps minutes old, your light-speed weaponry took minutes to reach them, and it took that much time again for you to know if you scored a hit. Defensive tactics consisted of trying to move your ship in unpredictable patterns. Ships were often cylindrical so they could have rotational gravity, but this was off for battle. Kinetic weapons existed, but were rarely used since at distances where they had a chance of hitting anything, it would have been basically like two old ships broad-siding each other only with deadly energy beams and in space.

Re:C.J. Cherryh has the most realistic handling (3, Informative)

maxume (22995) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478330)

Do you mean Stephen Donaldson?

I'm reasonably familiar with Stephenson's work and do not recognize his 'Gap series'.

Re:C.J. Cherryh has the most realistic handling (1)

idontgno (624372) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478768)

The Gap Series [wikipedia.org] is, indeed, Donaldson, and GPP's description is approximately consistent with what I remember. The space battles weren't the major point, of course; The Ring Cycle [wikipedia.org] was the major point.

Re:C.J. Cherryh has the most realistic handling (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30478498)

I'm not familiar with Neal Stephenson. But Stephen Donaldson wrote the books I think you are referring to in the post. At least that is the Gap sequence of Sci-Fi books I am familiar with.

Hey, rember in the TNG finale (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30477470)

When the future Enterprise flew at the other ship all perpendicular?! That was crazy.

Re:Hey, rember in the TNG finale (1)

jameskojiro (705701) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477944)

And then it flew it straight lines over cool impressive scenery while an orchestra played classical sounding music for the rest of the movie, that was like so totally cooler than Star Wars....

Not much surprising (4, Interesting)

JoshuaZ (1134087) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477514)

The point that nukes wouldn't generally be useful is a good one. And the point that kinetic weapons would be ideal also makes sense. However, I'm not completely convinced by the emphasis on orbital mechanics. In order for that make sense, one needs space travel to be cheap enough and convenient enough that one can easily have lots of ships in space. If that's the case, one needs efficient enough propulsion systems that will make orbital mechanics not matter as much. They'll still matter probably (and certainly matter more than they do in standard scifi) but I'm not at all convinced they'll matter as much as he makes it out.

Also, he doesn't address the issue that long-range kinetic impactors can make most space combat irrelevant if they are going fast enough. There's not much Earth could do if there were large mass drivers on say Demos and Phobos sending fairly small projectiles at targets on the Moon or Earth or targeting large space installations. Again in this situation orbital mechanics would matter. But when the planets are in the correct positions, such setups would render local space combat irrelevant.

Re:Not much surprising (3, Interesting)

alen (225700) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477608)

just like fighter pilots use energy and physics today, you'll need to use gravity in space combat. it's everywhere and if you use it properly you'll be able to maneuver faster than the other guy and probably kill him

Re:Not much surprising (3, Insightful)

nschubach (922175) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477732)

You make a point, but I would like to add a bit on that subject...

All you have to do is knock the Moon off orbit and Earth could be in for a fun ride... You wouldn't need to directly attack Earth. Just an object big enough (or a small object traveling fast enough) to change or degrade the orbit of the Moon. If you planned it well enough (and I'm assuming computers in that time would be able to calculate multiple trajectories...) you could simply upset the balance of the meteor belt and send objects hurling at us without us knowing where it came from.

In fact, it's making me wonder why we'd want to remain on such a fragile environment (when/if space travel becomes viable) and we start a conflict in space or piss off the natives of a more advanced society.

Re:Not much surprising (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30477806)

I disagree that nukes wouldn't be useful. Put enough tiny metal balls on it, send it into the middle of a fleet of ships and detonate. It will tear everything to shreds.

Re:Not much surprising (1)

Labcoat Samurai (1517479) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478176)

Of course the metal balls would be vaporized and not provide effective shrapnel. Which is what makes me wonder why nukes wouldn't be effective. Ok, there's no shockwave, but there's so much energy involved, if they detonate near the enemy ship, I'd expect the nuke to melt the ship. It's not like you can safely fly your ship close to the sun just because it's not getting buffeted with shockwaves.

Re:Not much surprising (1)

eabrek (880144) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478410)

Because if you can get close, you can get close with a cheaper slug (which gets your enemy equally dead). If you can't get close, missing with a nuke isn't any better than missing with a slug.

Article and grandparent are just wrong. (2, Informative)

RightSaidFred99 (874576) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478428)

They would be useful. Article is simply wrong. Sure, you don't have the shockwave but that much pure energy (even just the part that's shipward) would do a whole shitload of damage. You detonate the nuke when it hits the ship, I mean physically touches the ship. The ship will be destroyed. It's not like a ground based nuke where most damage comes from detonating in the air.

Re:Not much surprising (1)

TheKidWho (705796) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478530)

Vaporized? What would happen to those balls of mass? They would be turned into a plasma most likely and you end up with a situation where you have extremely hot goblets of plasma flying in every direction.

Conservation of Mass and Energy, it works.

Re:Not much surprising (1)

virg_mattes (230616) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478414)

I disagree that nukes wouldn't be useful. Put enough tiny metal balls on it, send it into the middle of a fleet of ships and detonate. It will tear everything to shreds.

No, it wouldn't. Without an atomosphere there's no shockwave to propagate outward, and with no shockwave there's nothing to push the balls. A nuclear detonation isn't like using an explosive that creates an expanding ball of gas. In space it would just be a huge ball of heat and hard radiation, which would melt the balls without motivating them outward at any real rate of speed.

Virg

Re:Not much surprising (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477808)

Even with very efficient means of propulsion, why fight against orbital mechanics when you can exploit it? Or to put it another way: which side do you think will win - the one exploiting it, or the one not doing it?

This of course assumes roughly equal technological level. A fair assumption IMHO, because in most of scenarios when that isn't the case (civilizations alien to each other), the difference might be such great that it would be no contest - alien civilizations are likely to be millions of years "out of synch", so even assuming hard limits of physics, one of those civs is bound to be much more finesse.

@kinetic impactors - slight deflection or even head on obstacle in their way might be an effective defense?

Nukes in Space. . . (1)

JSBiff (87824) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477934)

I have a question about the Nukes in space thing. I know that, without an atmosphere, you don't get the massive shockwave which causes much of the damage that you see in atmospheric detonations. . . but, wouldn't the Nuke still generate several million degrees of thermal energy? Wouldn't it tend to vaporize anything nearby, and melt things that are a little farther away, but still within like a mile or two? Wouldn't it also release a massive amount of Neutron radiation? (I'm not sure - could you effectively shield against that much neutron radiation? I know that space craft have to have a certain level of shielding just to remain safe from 'normal' Solar radiation, but could you effectively shield against the radiation released from an H-Bomb?)

Re:Nukes in Space. . . (1)

idontgno (624372) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478078)

I'd imagine the most chilling thing a space warship commander might hear is a loud hull thump followed by damage control declaring "Contact nuke!" A nuclear detonation would be dramatically less damaging at range, but up close and personal it'd still trump nearly everything else.

Re:Nukes in Space. . . (3, Interesting)

lgw (121541) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478400)

There's little radiant thermal energy directly from a nuke, and even in the atmosphere where there's a lot more, a sheet of bright white posterboard would be 100% eccective as a defense. Drop and cover.

The energy directly from a nuke is mostly expresses as gamma and x-rays. These are planty damaging, but fall off with the square of distance. You'd need to get a pretty large nuke in pretty close to your target to produce more radiation than bad weather. Space this close to the Sun is harsh, radiation-wise.

So the solution is to use the energy of a nuke, but overcome the range^2 thing: nuke-pumped X-ray lasers. This is not a new idea - it's why Reagan's missile defense program was called "Star Wars". For all I know, we have this weapon in orbit already.

Re:Nukes in Space. . . (1)

virg_mattes (230616) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478520)

I have a question about the Nukes in space thing. I know that, without an atmosphere, you don't get the massive shockwave which causes much of the damage that you see in atmospheric detonations. . . but, wouldn't the Nuke still generate several million degrees of thermal energy? Wouldn't it tend to vaporize anything nearby, and melt things that are a little farther away, but still within like a mile or two? Wouldn't it also release a massive amount of Neutron radiation? (I'm not sure - could you effectively shield against that much neutron radiation? I know that space craft have to have a certain level of shielding just to remain safe from 'normal' Solar radiation, but could you effectively shield against the radiation released from an H-Bomb?)

You're right about how an H-bomb would generate a massive amount of radiation. The problem is that getting a bomb within a mile or two of a ship isn't easy. The most important part is that the bomb can't cover that kind of distance really quickly, in terms of detection. Sure, you can shoot it at your opponent at high rate, but remember that in space you'll probably be considered "engaged with the enemy" from hundreds of miles out. They'll see the nuke coming, and can easily take measures to shoot it as it approaches. All they'd have to do is damage it and it won't detonate. If you could get it close it would certainly damage or destroy a ship, but in space it's the "get it close" part that turns into the challenge.

Virg

Re:Nukes in Space. . . (2, Interesting)

bluecoffee (1702800) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478664)

wrap the thing in polystyrene and depleted uranium rods boom hypersonic kinetic energy penetrators, fuck yo armour

Re:Not much surprising (1)

samkass (174571) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478050)

IMHO, the best science fiction depiction of this type of space combat was in the Neutronium Alchemist/Night's Dawn trilogy. All the mechanical (non-living) spacecraft were spherical, and space-to-space combat was accomplished through volleys of pods that contained weapons and countermeasures launched in swarms. The series depicts several space battles, as well as some space-to-ground attacks that are pretty fascinating reads. The series is highly recommended except for the ending-- in paperback it's split into 6 books, and I recommend just reading the first 5 then imagining how it might end. You'll definitely come up with a better plotline than the author's.

Re:Not much surprising (2, Interesting)

dakohli (1442929) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478512)

I enjoyed Hamilton's work as well, of course the ending was not satisfying at all. I suspect he just ran out of plot, and finished it up quickly.

How about Larry Niven's "Protector" which featured dueling Bussard Ramjets if memory serves?

Re:Not much surprising (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30478546)

I have read the hole series several times and I must agree! the depiction of space warfare if prety credible, the ending of the series....

Re:Not much surprising (1)

cthulu_mt (1124113) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478060)

kinetic weapons would be ideal

Just fit some armor hardeners and that thing will tank like a mutha...

Re:Not much surprising (1)

fermion (181285) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478424)

Mass drivers, as used to destroy planets in fiction such Babylon 5 is ideal. Proper use of the technology will insure victory, just like the atom bomb ended world war two.

If we are talking about some sort interplanetary war, the winner will be decided by the planet that has the technology of efficiently shifting the orbit of the solar detritus so that there is high probability of impacting the desired planet. It would be reasonable that planetary defenses could destroy several of these rocks before they impacted the planet, but could they destroy them all. If the attacking planet could set up an impact a month, even a few near missing would insure victory. While one planet sends their fancy rockets to destroy individual cities, thousands of rocks could be targeted to a planet, insuring destruction. Perhaps it takes a year for the rocks to arrive, and perhaps 90% of them are diverted or destroyed, but the 10% could destroy a planet.

On another note, any kinetic weapon fired from anything smaller than a large moon is, in my opinion, a losing proposition. The amount of fuel that would have be burned to counteract the force would be prohibitive. On earth we have friction and gravity which makes these weapons works. Independent missiles that fire after they leave the host, such as in current war plane designs, car work for close combat. Otherwise I see novel countermeasures that makes use of the fact that space is mostly empty. I have often though some exotic particle beam might work. An unstable particle that could penetrate shielding and wreak havoc with the electronics would be nice. The particles might have a life time of microseconds, but accelerated to relativistic velocities they might survive long enough to travel the distance between two ships, say several thousand miles.

Re:Not much surprising (1)

lgw (121541) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478646)

If you have the physics for interstallar travel, you likely have the physics just to mess with the opponent's star, creating a solar flare violent enough to burn away the atmosphere of the planet you don't like.

If you really want to throw mass around, solar sails and patience do the trick.

Heck, any weapon that isn't just turning the power of the nearby star against your opponent is probably second-rate.

Heinlein (4, Informative)

Garrett Fox (970174) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478502)

Sounds like the premise of Heinlein's "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress". Revolutionaries on the Moon take control of a mass driver and start flinging multi-ton barges at Earth, with just enough remote-control maneuvering that the shooters can call up Earth afterward and ask if they'd like to surrender.

Like evolution of the navy, but much further? (2, Interesting)

sznupi (719324) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477582)

More powerful weapons, with greater range. Any direct hit with intended kind of weapon knocks out of the action at the least. Mostly only active countermeasures are effective, unless you can exploit the environment somehow or are good at camouflage. Never stay put. One big cat & mouse game. And so on.

The factors that shaped this will be even more pronounced in space, with the added fun of predicting position (speed of light limit). Which makes majority of SciFi depictions that more disappointing; limited in popular formats to somewhere between WW1 and WW2 state of affairs.

Video games? (1)

rwa2 (4391) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477600)

I've long been looking for a space-fighting video game that actually uses real laws of physics. The closest I've seen so far are things like 2D Gravity Wars (sort of like Scorched Earth except your shots are affected by gravity of small planets between you and your target. Heck, even the classic Asteroids is more realistic than just about any other space shooter these days.

Most space games since Wing Commander and even Descent have strange limits like maximum speeds, and never let you go into uncontrolled spins... so it's kinda like there's an artificial atmosphere always present around your vehicle. Of course, if you could just keep accelerating towards your opponent, the gameplay would become decidedly different, like jousting. But even that seems more fun that what things like EVE have turned space combat into.

Anyone have good recommendations? My favorite 6DOF games so far are Descent (though it's hard to find a modern version of this) and Vendetta. VegaStrike and Beyond the Red Line shows some promise as an engine, but never really got into them much.

Re:Video games? (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30477762)

Independance war games have fairly convincing space physics, most of what you describe is present, including infinite acceleration and should you turn off your stabilizers or have them damaged look out....

Re:Video games? (1)

JockTroll (996521) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477816)

Ain't no one. But if you're not a loserboy nerd, I mean if you're a real jock, an athletic mentally and physically superior specimen, a true quarterback of the Cosmos, you could try the freeware space simulator Orbiter which is based on real, meaty, harsh physics. The stuff nerds cannot understand with their laughable trekkie obsessions.
Of course, space combat is not really a feature there but a work in progress. But as a real jock who can command programming, you should be able to write your own space-fighter add-on.

Re:Video games? (1)

rwa2 (4391) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478290)

Ah yes, Orbiter [ucl.ac.uk]! (Mod the parent Troll up, he actually knows what he's talking about beneath the harsh exterior he presents towards a cold, cruel world)

I spent many a good hour playing with Orbiter... I even managed to get the Space Shuttle into an irregular but stable orbit manually once (but of course without any fuel left for the reentry burn). I also liked their take at the advanced HUD and orbital transfer calculator on their Delta glider.

Anyway, I think they had some technical limitations that made it tough to implement multiplayer... plus not much of a damage model. But yes... Orbital and also Celestia are fun sims to explore, but not so much for combat :/ .

Re:Video games? (1)

zeropointburn (975618) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477846)

VegaStrike has indirect speed limits. Your shields can only handle a certain amount/speed of debris before it starts depleting. You can go as fast as you want, but if you go too far over your rated speed for too long, space junk blows you up.
(comment based on VS from some years ago, so may be different in more recent builds)
Admittedly, EVE doesn't explain why there should be speed limits. Other physics elements such as thrust, mass, and rotational velocity/acceleration are taken into account in fairly realistic ways. The main reason is that speed is a combat advantage and the designers carefully control it as they do all combat advantages.

Re:Video games? (1)

jameskojiro (705701) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477992)

I would love to have a video game where if you accelerate to c. you end up flying past the battle so that by the time you turn around and come back 1,000's of years have passed and there is no more battle and peace has been around for most of the time....

MISSION FAIL!!

Re:Video games? (1)

kliklik (322798) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478022)

I remember having a lot of fun playing Frontier on my Amiga. It's the only game I've played that has a realistic space flying physics. For example, if you come out of the hyperspace at some 1000km/s , the fastest way to slow down is to turn around and fire the main engines. I also loved manually landing on space stations. First you get to the star system, navigate to the planet, get to the space station (monitoring the relative speed to the station so you don't slam into it) then find the docking bay, sync your rotation to the stations and slowly float in.

Re:Video games? (1)

JSBiff (87824) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478092)

Wrt maximum speeds, I've always figured that was an allowance for the reality that computer frame rates are limited, so it's probably difficult to render over a particular speed with good results, and particularly with PC titles, different computers have different limits, but you are trying to provide a consistent experience on any computer which meets at least the minimum requirement.

Re:Video games? (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30478278)

Have you tried the Evochron series?

It's an indie game made by a one-man team, but it's very impressive. Evochron uses Newtonian physics primarily, but also has an optional thrust dampening system which utilizes your thrusters to make the ship control as if there were an atmosphere.

It's a real joy to fly the ship, but there is a bit of a learning curve.

Babylon5 (1)

B5_geek (638928) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477614)

I have always respected JMS for how 'realistic' he chose to portray space physics with the movement of his StarFury ships and the beam weapons. (As a side note, I could never understand how the station was able to rotate under the support struts when the station was obviously move massive.

Re:Babylon5 (1)

jameskojiro (705701) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477904)

The "support struts" only really supported the Solar arrays and microgravity bays, things you wanted to either keep in zero-G or keep pointed at a star.

But most of the mass you wanted to have gravity so most of it rotated....

Of course Babylon 4 was batter station but some jerkass stole it. It had counter rotating sections whicvh meant it would spend less in fuel to stabilize itself that B5. Probably why they torn down B5 after about 20-30 years worth of service....

Re:Babylon5 (1)

c6gunner (950153) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478188)

I have always respected JMS for how 'realistic' he chose to portray space physics with the movement of his StarFury ships and the beam weapons.

Too bad he ruined it by having psychics and alien space-gods, and messiahs coming back from the dead. Love the stories anyway, but as far as realism goes .... not so much.

(As a side note, I could never understand how the station was able to rotate under the support struts when the station was obviously move massive.

I always assumed that the stationary portions of the station had thrusters. You use the stationary structure to induce a rotation in the rest of the station, and then use the thrusters to counter the natural reaction. Once everything's rotating at it's proper speed you'd only need the thrusters once in a while in order to counter whatever friction is present in the system.

Re:Babylon5 (1)

Lemming Mark (849014) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478484)

I generally prefer sci-fi to use mysticism and magic when they want to get some unexplained magic, so I quite liked the psychics / gods. I prefer the approach (I'd say there's a fair helping of it in BSG and even Star Wars) to, say, Star Trek's tendency to just make up crazy bits of science. Star Trek's science focus *was* quite cool and in a sense made it all somewhat believable. But if they need a magic solution, I find it less jarring for it to be actual magic than for people to repeatedly do stuff that's supposed to be outside the reach of human science until the current crisis.

Just my PoV, of course - introducing mysticism stuff probably breaks any claim to be "hard sci-fi" and can be used as a horrible cheat (c.f. the way what you can achieve with The Force in Star Wars varies so much and the fact that "size matters not" - but it sometimes does!).

Re:Babylon5 (2, Insightful)

cthulu_mt (1124113) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478644)

psychics and alien space-gods, and messiahs coming back from the dead

Did you miss the memo about sufficiently advanced technology? I believe it was sent by Mr. Clarke in the Long Term Projects department.

Wow, TFA was really good. (1)

fred fleenblat (463628) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477624)

Only point I'd add is that differences in velocity between enemy ships in nearby (but not identical) orbits may be on the order of thousands of mph.

Targeting such a fast moving object is difficult, and launching any kind of projectile or missile to intercept it will require enormous energy and reaction mass to get to it, assuming even that you launch it at the most efficient instant.

High power lasers are easier to point and shoot, but you'll only have a few seconds with the target in range. I don't think beam divergence will be a problem, but aiming at something hundreds of miles away, moving at thousands of mph, the slightest vibration in the ship will send the beam several feet off course by the time it gets there. You won't be able to steadily drill a hole in the enemy ship, you'll just illuminate different parts of the hull w/o much heating or impacting any specific area.

Re:Wow, TFA was really good. (2, Interesting)

lgw (121541) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478566)

but aiming at something hundreds of miles away, moving at thousands of mph, the slightest vibration in the ship will send the beam several feet off course by the time it gets there. You won't be able to steadily drill a hole in the enemy ship, you'll just illuminate different parts of the hull w/o much heating or impacting any specific area.

The Airborn Laser program has to cope with the same problem, and shoot through an atmosphere. It's not that hard once you realize that you lens doesn't have to be made of glass. When you can change your lens geometry microsecond-by-microsecond, you can easily keep the beam on target over distances as short as hundreds of miles (and ever correct for atmospheric turbulance). If you dump enouh energy into the target it won't matter much that it's spead out a little. Of course, you want your laser to deliver its energy as fast as possible, but lasers are pretty good that way.

Or just use a nuke-pumped x-ray laser.

I predict... (3, Insightful)

hatemonger (1671340) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477668)

Assuming technology exists to accelerate space ships to interplanetarily practical speeds, what's to stop warring planets from accelerating an asteroid in the same way and in the direction of the enemy planet? Or take that acceleration technique and speed up some ball bearings to ridiculous speeds and send them on their way towards something with a predictable position like a space station? Hell, you could use millions of ball bearings like a mine field, because any ship traveling through the bearings will have such a high speed relative to them. I just wonder that if we currently get so butthurt about orbiting space debris, a space war will focus on simple kinetic weapons at huge speeds and from huge distances.

Ideal shape (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30477720)

The ideal shape will depend on the materials available and what its capabilities need to be. eg. does it need to be able to fly in an atmosphere, what type of lift propulsion is available, etc.

Spheres are great but also difficult to design and build around. In other words, complicated and expensive. Sometimes a cheap, simple, easy to build box is the best.

Could end up being anything because we aren't even close to actually creating something like this.

Peace (1)

Maximum Prophet (716608) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477736)

His last option, Peace, is the most likely. Space is so dangerous that most battles would end with both sides dead or dying.

Re:Peace (4, Insightful)

Xphile101361 (1017774) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477970)

They said this after the American Civil War. They said this after the first world war, the war to end all wars.... War will never end. "Let him who wishes for peace prepare for war" ~ Vegetius

not quite (3, Interesting)

wizardforce (1005805) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477826)

we'll be able to tell exactly what trajectories our enemies could take between planets: the launch window.

That assumes that there aren't technological advances that allow spacecraft to brute force the problem. Launch delays in terms of orbits mostly occur because of energy and fuel requirements. If you've got propulsion licked, you can pretty well launch when you wish.

to point high-power radar-reflection surveillance satellites at certain empty reaches of space

That isn't going to work for stealth spacecraft which are a trivial engineering problem next to propulsion. Space is huge, you're going to need very very powerful sensors to find anything the size of a ship.

Second, there are only a few ways to maneuver the attitude of a spacecraft around – to point it in a new direction. The fast ways to do that are to fire an off-center thruster or to tilt a gyroscope around to generate a torque. Attitude maneuvers would be critical to point the main engine of a space fighter to set up for a burn, or to point the weapons systems at an enemy. Either way, concealing the attitude maneuvers of the space fighter would be important to gain a tactical advantage. So I think gyroscopes ("CMGs," in the spacecraft lingo) would be a better way to go

Correct. Burning fuel just to change the ships' direction is a waste. Utilising conservation of angualar momentum with a gyroscope is efficient and technologically feasible. Sapcecraft that are large and non-sperical are going to be very difficult to manoeuvre. Concentrating most of the ships mass in tight near the center is the way to mitigate this problem.

A kinetic impactor is basically just a slug that goes really fast and hits the enemy fighter, tearing through the hull, damaging delicate systems with vibrations, throwing gyroscopes out of alignment so that they spin into their enclosures and explode into shards

I don't think kinetic impactors are the way to go here. A high energy neutral particle beam is demonstrated to work effectively and doesn't spread out too much over a vast difference. (not more than a few cm over 1000 km) There is no hope of stopping it either. A few GEV beam of particles shows no mercy and can punch through several meters of shielding.

lets just go with a tool that we already use to cut sheet metal on Earth: lasers. In space, laser light will travel almost forever without dissipating from diffraction

Lasers ablate material off the hull which obscures the target. Not quite the most effective weapon.

Deflector shields like those in fiction are not possible at present, but it would still make sense to armor combat spacecraft to a limited extent.

modified plasma window technology can function as a shield in a sense. Thick armor on the hull impedes the ship's ability to rotate.

What do we do to hit them on the ground? Well, strategic weapons from space are easy: kinetic impactors again.

Ammo is a problem. How many impactors can you have on an orbital defense platform? Just use particle beam technology to wipe out the ground force.

So, I think the small fighter craft would be nearly spherical, with a single main engine and a few guns or missiles facing generally forward.

Only if you don't plan on re-entry as a sphere is non-optimal for utilising the effect that shaceship one was supposed to use; that is using a flat surface to force a ubble of air to pool in front of the craft and buffer against the heat.

Re:not quite (1)

eabrek (880144) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478466)

That isn't going to work for stealth spacecraft which are a trivial engineering problem next to propulsion.

Please describe a stealth system that is usable in space and effective against both IR and radar.

Sounds like the ideal shape for spaceships will be (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30477890)

That's no moon...

Explosions in Space (1)

Xphile101361 (1017774) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477926)

Explosions are basically a waste of energy in space. On the ground, these are devastating because of the shock wave that goes along with them.

This I would heavily disagree with. Explosions are usually devastating on the ground because of the amounts of shrapnel that are generated by them. I don't believe a grenade is deadly because of the shock wave caused by them. Bits of metal flying in all directions is deadly both on the ground and in space.

Re:Explosions in Space (1)

L3370 (1421413) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478000)

the shock wave produced by grenade explosions are in fact pretty dangerous. The compression waves are enough to rupture internal organs, if close enough

Re:Explosions in Space (1)

TiberiusMonkey (1603977) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478292)

While you're right that the shrapnel is deadly, the shockwave from a grenade is enough to cause a lot of harm, the closer you are the worse off you'll be.

Lets not forget Time Dilation (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30477954)

Since theres no friction, there may be some ships really cruising along. Maybe not so much in orbit battles, but at lagrange points for example. Your enemy could be sitting at L2 waiting for you to fly by, but your coming from mars with a ion drive, and have approached 2/10's C. Now every second to you is 2 or 3 seconds to the defending guy...
Were gonna need some faster computers...

Lasers PEW PEW! (2, Funny)

L3370 (1421413) | more than 4 years ago | (#30477956)

Lasers lasers lasers! I'd imagine long distance battles (10's, 100's, 1000's of km) so anything traveling less than the speed of light would be horribly ineffective against evasive maneuvers.

And someone needs to invent something that makes laser pew pew sounds in the void of space!

Flying near c.? (1)

jameskojiro (705701) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478016)

If you fly at near the speed of c. since time on your ship would slow down, looking out your view port would it appear as if your ship was traveling faster than c.?

Re:Flying near c.? (1)

Xordan (943619) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478522)

I believe it would appear as if the distance between objects had decreased. The speed of light would also always measure the same.

Re:Flying near c.? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30478610)

More importantly, your reaction time would be less because of the time dilation. Also, because mass increases as you approach c, it would be harder to maneuver. For those reasons, I think most battles would take place well below relativistic velocities.

in the war of 1812 (4, Interesting)

circletimessquare (444983) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478020)

the peace treaty was signed in december 1814. but a major battle in the war, the one that made andrew jackson's name, took place in new orleans AFTER the peace treaty. the combatants didn't hear about the peace until february 1815

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_New_Orleans [wikipedia.org]

i think we'll see a return of that in space warfare. sure the wide open vacuum of space changes everything, but so does the sheer vastness of it all. in future space battles, it wouldn't be surprising for a peace to be signed, the agreement beamed to combatants at light speed... and yet the battle still rages on for weeks, months, maybe even years. the battlefield might be lightyears away from the capitols

i don't even know if the idea of central command will work. we're used to modern tom clancy style special operations nowadays where forces engage the enemy while analysts watch them in realtime in pentagon/ cia warrooms as infrared images on massive screens, caught from spy satellites high above

but you can't do that in space

so warfare in space will deevolve from this sort of highly vertically integrated command and control aspect. you can't, for example, have a commander on earth relaying instructions to his troops on mars in real time, simply because the radio signal takes 10-20 minutes, one way (depending upon orbital locations)
 

Re:in the war of 1812 (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30478472)

Joe Haldeman wrote a few books based on the idea of soldiers travelling at relativistic speeds to fight battles. IIRC, there were times when an invasion force arrived long after a treaty was signed. That kind of war sort of has to end in ripples, it seems to me.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Forever_War

"Woman, fetch me my Large Hadron Collider . . . (1)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478024)

. . . i'ma gonnin' ona' space battle!"

But the LHC thing seems to have the reliability of a blunderbuss.

For my next space battle, I'm planning to pack something that ejects gamma ray bursts.

Y'all behind the weapon might want to take cover . . .

E. E. Doc Smith.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30478106)

..predicted spherical battle cruisers decades ago in the Lensman books. The only exception to the rule were "needle" ships designed for covert operations that required entering and exiting planetary atmospheres at high speed.

Of course, before we can fully emulate the staggeringly majestic deepspace battles of the Lensman series, we'll have to discover/develop/be given the inertialess drive which enabled "planet smashing", where two planets with directly opposing radial velocities would be made inertialess, stuffed into hyperspace tubes that terminated on either side of the target planet, and once they imerged, the inertialess drive would be switched off, causing the planets to resume their previous motion smashing together with the target in the middle.

Bitchin'.

Mote in God's Eye (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30478144)

The Mote in God's Eye http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mote_in_God%27s_Eye by Niven and Pournelle had a combat scene which directly addressed the issues of large distances and the large G forces required to accelerate to get close enough to interact with other vessels (in this case a vessel heading straight into a sun). They also talked about the issues of doing this in a universe with no 'inertial damping fields', so the humans on the vessel were completely subject to the large G forces (max about 3G sustained for a combat vessel).

This is silly conjecture... (1)

Manhigh (148034) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478148)

"Therefore, I contend that the most effective kinetic space weapons would be either flak shells or actively thrusting, guided missiles."

Right...because flak shells which emit hundreds or thousands of tiny projectiles are a great idea in orbit. Some will probably reach escape velocity, some will impact the orbited body, but a many will likely remain in orbit. I don't think it's in the aggressor's interest to generate a load of space junk.

"If launched from the ground, armor must be minimized to reduce the launch weight of the spacecraft. But if built and launched in space, it would make sense to plate over vital systems of the vehicle"

Until we have active mines on asteroids or the moon, space-based construction doesn't buy anything. If you still have to haul the raw materials out of Earth's gravity well, then you still have to pay the launch costs, sorry.

Based on the idea of very little power??? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30478158)

Now I am not a scientist or physicist. Hell I don't know crap. But, let's assume that there are not alternative power sources out there. We have the sun, and our limited fossil fuels. But, if we expand the idea of space we see that many of the resources are near unlimited. Unlimited once we have the resources to harvest them.

For instance, Titan has large methane clouds that could be harvested as a fuel source. You could repeat that for many different fuels it's just a matter of finding those resources and getting them into space.

But what about the idea that we use a star for an energy source? There are big stars and smallish stars. There are old stars and young stars? Aren't there small stars? Couldn't we harvest a star for an energy source?

Once we see space travel through the idea of nearly unlimited powerful energy we really change many of the ideas. A laser with enough energy becomes a Trekian phazer.

failzoRS!? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30478218)

things I still Lite is straining anyone that thinks and/or distribute

Starfury. (1)

TiberiusMonkey (1603977) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478244)

Babylon 5 is still the only sci-fi show/film that had battles that I felt could be real, in particular the EA Starfury fighters, or the SA-23E Mitchell-Hyundyne Starfury if you want to be really nerdy. I believe NASA asked for permission to use the design.

Kim Stanley Robinson, "Red Mars" (1)

MoralHazard (447833) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478268)

Martian colonists get angsty, and decide to get liberated. The Earth-based companies that own the colonies decide (naturally) to launch a transport full of a few thousand space marines to retake control. That trip takes a few months, minimum, even on the fastest, least fuel-efficient course that the transport is capable of making. So the colonists know that the marines will be dropping in, well in advance of their showing up in orbit.

Now, instead of using the ship's main engines to decelerate completely on arrival, most of the Earth-Mars ships aero-brake in the thin Martian atmosphere, which conserves fuel (which can instead be used at the beginning of the trip, to accelerate out from Earth, so that the whole trip takes less time). The ship slows down partially with its engines, and then flies into the beginnings of a very close hyperbolic "slingshot" pass that grazes the upper reaches the atmosphere. The added friction slows the ship down, curling the orbit inward and turning the actual course into a parabola. In theory, if done correctly, the ship would end up in a stable "parked" orbit, with zero fuel expenditures after the slowdown and course-correction it performed at the beginning of the approach.

But, unfortunately for the intrepid space marines, a crafty scientist amongst the colonists builds a small, cheap solid-fuel rocket with a basic guidance system and a nasty payload: An explosive packed with scrap-metal shrapnel. As the marines' ship approaches and its pilots initiate their aero-braking manoeuvre, the lone colonist launches his flak rocket into the ship's approach path, where it explodes and scatters a cloud of metallic debris.

The ship's radar detects the sudden appearance of the cloud of space junk, and the navigation computer performs an emergency space-ward course adjustment to avoid a collision with the potentially dangerous debris. But the new course is too high in the atmosphere to burn off enough of its momentum, and its course stays hyperbolic--the transport ship "skips" off the Martian atmosphere and continues back out into space at high speed, on a random new course. Sorry, no invasion, this year.

The troop ship has enough fuel left to change course toward Jupiter, and it takes a conventional hyperbolic return course around the gas giant to get back heading toward the inner Solar system. Eventually, it DOES manage to get into a Martian orbit (much more carefully, this time), but the additional Jupiter round-trip buys the colonists the extra time they need to prepare to handle the invaders on the ground.

Amazing stuff, fantastic book (and trilogy, too).

It all depends on the hypothetical technologies (1)

jollyreaper (513215) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478404)

Space battles are still the realm of science fiction. Depending on how far out we push the speculative technology, we could stick with relatively hard SF with direct extrapolations of current technology or softer SF with more fanciful tech employed in a plausible and self-consistent fashion.

There are certain things you would expect, regardless of the technology. For example, consider the Starfury from Babylon 5. You have omnidirectional thrusters. This would be expected in a combat ship. It might be considered economical for a civilian ship to have one big thruster in back and for the whole ship to rotate ass-backwards for deceleration. But it might also be the case that a military ship would require the omnidirectional thrusters as well so that it can perform significant delta-v in various directions while keeping a specific attitude. One example I could think of is if the ship's primary armament is a big gun running the length of the ship necessitating the entire ship be maneuvered to aim it. You wouldn't want to have to point it away from the enemy just so the ship could maneuver.

I think the only thing that's really safe to say is that space warships will not be directly analogous to anything in our current or past experience. It's not going to be Horatio Hornblower in space, it's not going to be WWII in space, it's going to be different. I like watching the scifi movies and seeing how fairly contemporary industrial design is simply ported into space. Bulky monochrome CRT's in the 70's, color going into the 80's, flat panels start showing up in the 90's. Star Trek completely missed the idea of brilliant pretty displays though I would have to imagine trying to simulate them with the sfx budget at the time would be difficult. Robots were seen as being able to walk, that's the easy part, but doing math is hard! And those old writers had no idea just how much math something like Asimo has to do just to walk. Likewise, the robot could understand your spoken question of what's 2234*542 but it takes a minute to compute.

In all honesty, I'd put my money on a realistic space warship as driven by expert systems and automation. The humans may give operational guidelines and issue a specific command here and there but everything else is automated. No captain on the bridge shouting commands, no sweating rated crew struggling to load photon torps, no engineer running around the engine room. I think that it would make for fairly boring cinema unless the story is not about the adventure of the fight. Look at drone operations in the current wars. Guys sitting behind monitors blowing up people on the other side of the planet, then going home to the family. You're not going to get people on the edge of their seats describing the fight but there could be fertile ground for exploring the dehumanization of this remote control warfare. Joe Haldman explored it before it was a reality, now we can see how much he got right.

Couple More Issues (1)

smitty777 (1612557) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478432)

FTA: "It's different than land, sea and air battles in that the enemy can come at you from any direction". I don't know what kind of aircraft you fly, but mine generally operate in 3 dimensions.

Second, are we assuming that the aliens have equal technology as us? If we set up our defense network in an orbit as they suggest, and the aliens have alternative means of propulsion, we are hosed.

nuclear weapons still best (worst) weapons (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30478508)

I can't agree with his thoughts on armour or nukes; my preference for a space weapon would be nuclear missiles with a warhead wrapped in polystyrene and a vast number of depleted uranium rods. No point in armour with something like that around; stealth and agility are the important things.

lack of sensory feedback (1)

peter303 (12292) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478620)

In earth battles its the assault on the senses: incredibly loud noise all the time, the smells of gunnpowder and burning. And you are in hand-combat situation, you have the bitter smells of sweat and blood, the shooting and screaming. This all helps pump up the adrenaline. In contrast space battles would be mostly sterile and silent, until you took a direct hit.

Space is huge (1)

gurps_npc (621217) | more than 4 years ago | (#30478760)

Because of the distances, missiles won't work. Too easy to stop them. They need some kind of sensor to detect their target, a laser should be able to blind whatever sensor they are using, even if the laser can't destroy the missile.

Has to be some speed of light weapon, laser being the most obvious one. The hard part will be predicting where the target is

  • going to be, when the laser arrives

. Even if you are 3 light seconds away, that is more than enough time to zig zag your way to safety.

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