We Have Never Fought a Battle in Space

Why do you think people are fascinated with space warfare? What would a space battle look like? I think Hollywood and other groups in the film industry have done space battles all wrong. Maybe the classic space battle stereotype is the Star Wars attack on the death star, where Luke Skywalker delivers the final shot just as the Death Star is about to destroy the moon where the rebel base is hidden.

Two spaceships battle each other in close combat in orbit around a planet.
We have no experience at fighting space battles but dramatic representations of them are based on the wrong principles, violating the laws of physics.

There are so many wrong ideas about space battles in the movies. For example, they show fighter craft swarming around larger spaceships and space stations as if they were airplanes changing vectors in an atmosphere. Airplanes, even powerful jets, use flaps on their wings and tails to change the direction of airflow about their wings and fuselages. Changing the airflow means the pressure on side of a plane’s structure drops or increases, thus pushing the plane gently in a new direction. It’s a very graceful form of movement that birds and insects have mastered for at least 100 million years.

But in the near-vacuum of space there is nothing like a planetary atmosphere to help small craft change their vectors. They would have to use a constant burn of fuel or energy to change their vectors, but they would accelerate beyond the pilots’ control. So the best way to change course in space is to slow down first and then point your vessel in a new direction; this calls for using less energy or fuel, because the faster an object moves the more massive it becomes and the more mass an object possesses the more energy it requires to change vector.

A space shuttle can use the gravity of the planet it orbits to change its speed relative to the planet by increasing or decreasing altitude. The closer the shuttle gets to the planet the more the attraction of their two masses will increase, and that has a similar effect to increasing the mass of an object by accelerating it. And yet even with altitude changes in orbit space craft can overshoot their destinations. Hence, they may have to use “attitude jets” or similar devices to slow their rates of spin and movement.

If we launched 100 space craft to fight an enemy fleet they would have to be able to change direction quickly. Some people suggest that using spherical craft would reduce the amount of energy required to change their vectors. But that is not entirely correctly. The advantage of using a spherical space craft is that you can place your propulsion units all around the sphere. But you would still need to expend enormous amounts of energy to change vectors.

So I think that space battles may have to be fought by slow-moving vessels. But even there you run into problems that don’t exist on a planet like Earth. These slow-moving vessels would be slow in order to attain maximum maneuverability. Watching these ships move in and out of each other’s ways would be like observing a delicate ballet in space. Hence, they could not afford to use heavy armor for defense; that armor would add too much mass.

Our fleet of large, slow-moving vehicles would have to use some form of energy or magnetism to defend themselves as they move through space. But even if these energy-based defenses can protect against metal and energy weapons, any non-magnetic or non-conductive material could be used as projectile weapons. The slow-moving ships would have to possess at least two layers of defensive technologies.

Projectile weapons pose a problem, too. If a space craft fires thousands of rounds of ammunition at an enemy vessel it either has to be very precise with its firepower or else it has to use considerable restraint. Without restraint of firepower you send deadly ammunition off into space in random vectors that may endanger innocent space craft. Maybe the best solution is to use smart ammunition that knows when it has passed out of the battle zone. But even there if the ammunition simply detonates itself it only creates a cloud of small dust and fragments that still may create a problem for other ships.

It might be best to tether ammunition to the launching ships so that it can be easily retrieved even during battle. Tethering ammunition to the launching vessel means you can use it over and over again until it finally completes its mission. An alternative would be to use micro technologies to create ammunition that can disintegrate itself into a gas-like substance which would just gradually dissipate.

Microtechnology ammunition could be programmed to attach itself to an enemy vessel and “eat” away at the vessel’s hull, or to seek out important propulsion systems. If the ammunition becomes lost in space it will eventually disintegrate. Defending against nano-ammunition that is smart enough to know where it is and what it should do next would be very difficult. Still, it would make close-formation space battles more feasible. One ship could board another quite easily.

What may work even better would be for ships to simply attach themselves to each other, each vessel attempting to absorb the component materials of its mortal enemy. In such a conflict there might be no victor but at least you would not be spraying beams of energy particles across the Solar System, or creating dangerous flying mine fields filled with “live” ammunition.

The aftermath of a large battle might consist of a single huge glob of a spaceship that has eaten all of its opponents, much like an antibody destroys a horde of viruses. This giant glob might eventually reassemble itself into a new fleet of ships (greater in number than before) ready to take on the next attacker.