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Ask Slashdot: What Would Real Space Combat Look Like? 892

Posted by Soulskill
from the small-things-throwing-smaller-things-at-small-things dept.
c0mpliant writes "Two friends and I were up until the wee hours of the morning over the weekend debating what real space combat would look like. I've spent some time looking it up online, and there doesn't seem to be any general consensus. So, I thought I'd ask a community of peers what they think. Given our current technology and potential near-future technology, what would a future space battlefield look like? Would capital ships rule the day? Would there be equivalents of cruisers, fighters and bombers, or would it be a mix of them all?"
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Ask Slashdot: What Would Real Space Combat Look Like?

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  • noise (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:39PM (#39102849)

    It would be a lot louder than what you see on TV

  • by sg_oneill (159032) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:40PM (#39102867)

    unmanned drones sniping the shit out of each other over ridiculous distances using lasers and maybe perhaps anti-matter "nukes".

    It would be brief, anonymous, and if any of the targets where manned, mercifully swift. It'd make a boring anime.

    • Yeah, pretty much that.

      Little to no action inside line of sight. Probably a lot of use weapons that can hit indirectly (flak shells, nukes, etc.) Area denial (spreading a bunch of ball bearings all over the place) likely as a last-ditch MADD-type effort. My money'd be on cheap, small, one-time-use smart missiles being the most common weapon, probably just trying to get close enough to fire a ton of shrapnel in the direction of their target rather than actually hit it. As a rule, the bigger the object th

    • by fermion (181285) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:10PM (#39103389) Homepage Journal
      Pretty much, which is why real space battles are not on tv.

      One show I think did do a good job was Babylon 5. The battles tended not to be overdramatic. In particular acceleration was used to accelerate.. There was use of kinetic bombardment which seems to be the consensus method to kill a planet.

      I think we are seeing the beginning of what space battles will be like. Namely, drones controlled by remote operators. I am sure we will see autonomous. drones playing a key role.

  • by AngryDeuce (2205124) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:40PM (#39102869)
    My prediction: slow and boring.
    • by vlm (69642) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:53PM (#39103131)

      My prediction: slow and boring.

      Based on my experience in the military 20 years ago, it will remain the same as today... 99.99% boring as all hell; a bad dilbert cartoon would be better, and 00.01% holy cow. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

    • No, dark and fast (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Chemisor (97276) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:56PM (#39103957)

      The key to combat anywhere is stealth and ambushes followed by application of maximum force. In space this translates to first getting to the enemy star system undetected. This is dead easy, due to space being so huge and the spaceships being so small. Once you get close to the system, land in the cometary cloud. Spread through the cloud over a couple of centuries. Build fusion drives on every comet you land on. Paint each one a nonreflective black to make them undetectable by any means other than star occlusion. Fire the drives to alter orbits in such a manner as to bring maximum amount of comets impacting each habitable planet at the same time. If the poor shmucks detect anything, it will be very close to impact time and with the number of huge rocks flying at them, a few hundred will get through and turn each planet totally uninhabitable. For best results, follow through with additional bombardment to keep the dust up for a few decades; this should come close to sterilizing the entire surface. When the dust clears, land the colony ship. Repopulate the biosphere with Earth stock. Exterminate anything else. This is the only realistic kind of space combat there's going to be.

      • Re:No, dark and fast (Score:5, Interesting)

        by AdamWill (604569) on Monday February 20, 2012 @06:44PM (#39104513) Homepage

        you're assuming 'combat between people and some other species we simply want to annihilate', which is all well and good, but it's not the only possible type of combat.

        it's pretty much a given for anyone who's thought about it for more than thirty seconds that kinetic bombardment is pretty much unanswerable, and hence the only type of combat that it's worth really thinking about is the kind in which kinetic bombardment of a 'stationary' target doesn't really achieve anything - so we're talking about, say, combat between two factions, whether human or non-human, for control of existing resources which have value to both sides. There's no point kinetically bombarding a planet if the whole point of the war is to gain control of something on the planet.

    • by NF6X (725054) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:57PM (#39103965) Homepage
      Decades of boredom punctuated by nanoseconds of hard radiation.
    • My alternative prediction: over in seconds, but planned ahead days/months/years* in advance.

      *Orbits are like that.

  • by danbert8 (1024253) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:41PM (#39102881)

    I'm pretty sure space combat would consist of humans trying to kill each other in space considering if there are aliens, we are unlikely to ever meet them, and if they make it this far, they aren't going to waste their precious resources trying to kill us.

    And as far as mankind on mankind action, I'd guess it would amount to throwing small masses at high velocity at each other (throwing rocks in a glass house).

  • by stoicfaux (466273) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:42PM (#39102901)
    Lots of good data here, from reality to various levels of sci-fi.: http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/spacewarintro.php [projectrho.com]
  • Humans or no? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Kickboy12 (913888) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:42PM (#39102905) Homepage
    I always thought the idea of having humans on board a "space battle cruiser" were really weak on imagination. It's very likely space battles would take place with autonomous robots, controlled from a distance, so as not to sacrifice human lives. This, in general, is probably the future of military combat. A million little nano bots would also be much more effective in waging a battle than 1 or 2 giant ships with laser beams (also weak on imagination).
  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:45PM (#39102951)

    First, actions would take place over distances of 1000's of kilometres. Maneuvering would be slow and expensive in fuel use - as would any change in course or speed. In that respect it would be like a naval action from the days of sail.

    However the weapons would be directed energy, rather than projectile and the vessels themselves would be almost impossible to detect - partly because of the distances and partly because of the stealthy designs they would employ. Visual detection methods would be almost obsolete, the only exception being to look out for occultations.

    • by exploder (196936)

      and the vessels themselves would be almost impossible to detect - partly because of the distances and partly because of the stealthy designs they would employ. Visual detection methods would be almost obsolete, the only exception being to look out for occultations.

      So all the ships would operate at a temperature of 3 Kelvin?

  • One small rock (Score:4, Insightful)

    by reezle (239894) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:45PM (#39102959) Homepage

    One small rock accelerated for a long enough time then steered at a large ship (or moon or planet) would pretty much be the end of it.
    Can't really imagine much combat going on when it's a mutually assured destruction scenario any way you look at it.
    Most mass entertainment scenarios make sure that the attacking force needs to capture (not destroy) what they are attacking to make sure this doesn't come up.

    I suppose lots of tiny enclaves (small hollowed out asteroids) on both sides could duke it out with small ships. Still can't imagine a large enough industrial base to keep things going very long, though. Anything big enough to build ships would just be destoryed.

  • by nairnr (314138) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:46PM (#39102977)
    Well, first come out of your mother's basement and check out what we like to call "daylight". Then go back and roll for damage...
  • by PrescriptionWarning (932687) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:49PM (#39103039)
    "The Universe" documentary series had an episode on "Space Wars". Pretty interesting actually, and its up on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYvVmPJ-HYE [youtube.com] Space dogfights in particular were pretty crazy in that video, it mostly centered around combat that moved so fast only robots would be able to perform these maneuvers.
  • by SJHillman (1966756) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:50PM (#39103071)

    I imagine it would bear a resemblance to the old sailing ships. Any maneuvering would have to be done before you engaged the opponent, as it takes quite a bit of energy and fuel to maneuver inside of a vacuum. Ships would try to come at their opponent at a T while firing large mass drivers. Although lasers are more effective in space than on land, I don't think they would be nearly as effective as huge chunks of mass. Electronic launch systems would solve many of the problems with recoil. Lasers would only make sense if the fuel required to power them is more mass-efficient than the combination of fuel required to power mass drives plus the mass itself.

    Fighters/bombers like we traditionally think of them probably wouldn't be used. Instead, small single-manned ships could be used to stealthily deliver a single-shot payload - they would operate more like mini-subs carrying a single torpedo.

  • Gunbusta! (Score:4, Funny)

    by Malenx (1453851) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:50PM (#39103075)

    If I've learned anything from anime, it's that space battles will consist of giant armadas of robots piloted by people who all get slaughtered until a random girl in a giant robot suit with infinite capabilities eventually achieves the self esteem she needs to take the fight straight to the bad guys and wipe them out, escaping at the last possible second.

  • Two ships (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Inda (580031) <slash.20.inda@spamgourmet.com> on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:51PM (#39103079) Journal
    Two ships would face each other, head to head.

    The first ship would power the weapons.

    The second ship would not, so as not to seem hostile. There's a sense of bravado; manly posturing, but dialogue is the weapon of choice.

    The first ship fires a single anti-graviton phase beam.

    The second ship explodes because Picard is a pussy.

    That's how future space battles are fought.
  • by Raul654 (453029) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:52PM (#39103109) Homepage

    I'm going to start from a few first principles here. First - and I don't think this one is seriously open to dispute - (A) space is an exceptionally harsh, unforgiving environment. Failure in any one of these systems: the hull, the carbon dioxide collectors, the heating unit - will render a space vehicle uninhabitable. A failure in either the engines or navigation system will likely lead to a ballistic course to nowhere.

    Now, (B) if the history of human space exploration is any indicator, we really don't know how to build fault-tolerant space systems at all. Almost any malfunction tends to produce a catastrophic outcome. Putting principles A and B together, any battle damage of any sort is likely to render the vehicle unsurvivable and kill all the crew.

    Now, consider the expense of launching anything of size. Remember, the ISS is the most expensive structure ever built by man. So the idea of putting large, fragile, massively expensive craft (where they can be shot down by space-capable ballistic or nuclear missiles, or damaged with a ground-based lasers) is a total non-starter.

    If you want to know what a real war in space looks like with our current level of technology, it's going to involve small, expendable space-based satellites hiding from ground-based things radar and weapons.

    And lastly, *any* space combat is going to dramatically increase the amount of space debris in orbit of earth (as China's test a couple years ago did, or the accidental irridium satellite collission did). Just a few incidents could turn dramatically render Earth's near space too dangerous for manned craft for a long time to come.

  • by neiras (723124) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:52PM (#39103113)

    Silence. Occasionally a small flash off in the distance as a projectile smashes into its target. No need for explosives, just high relative velocity and a high mass projectile. Actually, this is probably what a planetary defense network would look like - thousands of massive projectiles in different orbits, with some means of nudging each one to meet an incoming ship approaching from any direction.

    No space fleet would ever fly in close formation. You'd probably have 100km spacing between vessels. Evasive action would be a matter of nudging your heading by a tenth of a degree, thus missing pursuers by hundreds of kilometres. Whoever can detect threats first wins, period - and evasion, not confrontation, probably makes the most sense.

    Actually, fleets probably don't make sense - easier to see a cluster of ships travelling together than to see ten ships all on wildly different orbits, all arriving at a specific attack point within minutes of each other. Worse, once you deploy your ships you probably won't have enough fuel to react effectively to a change in the tactical situation. Your plan is locked in at launch. God help you if your enemy's intelligence gathering is good.

    Human crew would be nearly useless, unless there were resources to be captured from the enemy which required EVA. Shock troops only, no return trip.

    All the pew-pew-pew zoomy shit we see in movies with Cylons banking like fighter jets is just not workable. And honestly, the more I think about it, the less defensible a planet seems to be without massive improvement in detection tech and energy weapons. Even fleet warfare is unlikely; two fleets could easily miss each other and pass in the night.

    I think the only space warfare we're likely to ever see is between two enemies sharing a planet. Whoever gets the upper hand in orbit wins.

  • Mass Effect (Score:5, Informative)

    by theVP (835556) * on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:55PM (#39103165)
    I think they have it right in Mass Effect. It's going to be really really awful and boring. Gunners are going to be mathematicians, and you can turn into some sort of butcher simply by missing.


    Gunnery Chief: [as the character enters the Citadel] This, recruits, is a 20-kilo ferris slug, feel the weight. Every five seconds, the main gun of an everest class dreadnought accelerates one to 1.3% of light-speed. It impacts with the force of a 38-kiloton bomb. That is three times the yield of the city-buster dropped on Hiroshima back on Earth. That means- Sir Issac Newton is the deadliest son-of-a-bitch in space. Now! Serviceman Burnside! What is Newton's first law?

    Serviceman Burnside: Sir! An object in motion stays in motion, sir!

    Gunnery Chief: No credit for partial answers, maggot!

    Serviceman Burnside: Sir! Unless acted on by an outside force, sir!

    Gunnery Chief: Damn straight! I dare to assume you ignorant jackasses know that space is empty. Once you fire this hunk of metal, it keeps going til it hits something. That can be a ship. Or the planet behind that ship. It might go off into deep space and hit somebody else in ten thousand years. If you pull the trigger on this, you are ruining someones day, somewhere and sometime. That is why you check your targets. That is why you wait for the computer to give you a damn firing solution. That is why, Serviceman Chung, we do not "eyeball it". This is a weapon of mass destruction. You are not a cowboy shooting from the hip!

    Serviceman Chung: Sir, yes sir!
    • by ildon (413912)

      That was my first thought, too. Reading the codex, someone put a LOT of thought into what real space combat with real physics might be like.

  • Screw ships, go RKVs (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Eudial (590661) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:58PM (#39103201)

    Remove ships out of the equation entirely. I don't quite see what they could contribute. They're slow and inefficient, and impossible to give orders in time over large distances.

    Relativistic kill vehicles [wikipedia.org] are far more menacing weapons than any ship. It's a reinvention of one of mankind's earliest weapons: The humble rock, thrown at the enemy. But this rock is accelerated very near the speed of light, making it nearly impossible to detect, and completely impossible to stop (if you blow one up, it just increases the destruction). Even a fairly modest RKV can carry the destructive force of a hundreds of atomic bombs and absolutely obliterate it's target.

  • by MrLizard (95131) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:00PM (#39103247)

    I believe it will end up being a lot like that described in Niven's "Protector"... you launch your weapons, and, five years later, you look to see if they hit.

    That's for interstellar combat. For orbital combat... a lot would depend on the goal. Are you trying to knock out the enemy's satellites? Drop bombs on his population centers? Stop his transport ships from leaving Earth and getting to their destinations?

    The easy answer is "drones, drones, and more drones", but this assumes ECCM will equal ECM well enough to make it at least a tossup that you'll get through the other guy's defenses. I'd also make a guess that we'll never get as much damage potential out of a beam weapon as we will out of an explosive, and the simpler the technology, the less things can go wrong. I'm seeing, basically, drones that get as far as they can from the enemy, analyze their motions, and then launch direct-fire weapons based on prediction algorithms as to where the enemy will be when the projectiles get there. I'd also speculate that anything launched, including the drones, would be absolutely blind to any kind of orders to go home, change targets, respond to IFF, etc, because the chances of being fed false data are too great. This would lead, of course, to the launch of basically uncontrolled weapons armed with considerable destructive power, so, if they were hacked pre-launch... oops...

    This, in turn, might lead to remote control, where the drones have no "brains" but are piloted by humans. Of course, this opens the same problem -- if the drones are controlled in any way by an outside signal, an enemy can and will find a way to hijack that signal. So, back to self-guided vehicles with no way to turn them off or shut them down. (And even this leads to problems... if there's a "mission complete, go home" algorithm, you run the risk of someone figuring out what the drone needs to "see" to conclude "mission complete" and finding a way to fake it. So, logically, you just have the drone explode when it's done.

    If the general area being fought over is well defined, you might have some kind of minefield, using virtually-inert devices that rely on passive sensors to come to life and go 'boom' when something is near, but I've read a lot of people arguing that nothing is inert enough to not be trivially detected far off.

    (Of course, I'm not sure there's anything to fight over in space other than to knock out the other guy's satellites, and there won't be anything else up there for a long, long time... so long that making predictions about the kind of tech used is probably impossible. As for the satellites, it's probably much easier to just fire some ground-based or plane-based missiles at them than to try for any kind of "space war".)

  • by steveha (103154) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:07PM (#39103345) Homepage

    We don't have any kind of "shields" technology, so a laser is a pretty useful weapon in space. You can aim it from a long distance, you can overheat just one spot on a target, and you can reuse the laser once you get it into space. So there is likely a place for lasers in near-future space combat.

    And with the kinds of speeds that things travel in space, even small masses can wreak major harm if the vectors are opposed. If you can fling a cloud of ball bearings where a satellite's orbit will take it into collision, you can likely destroy the satellite pretty cheaply. So I'm definitely not ruling out some sort of kinetic weapons.

    But the space weapons that are sufficiently non-classified that I have been able to read about them are all missiles: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-satellite_weapon [wikipedia.org]

    I think for the near future, any space combat will be anti-satellite operations. For example, if the USA were fighting a land war, and the enemy could take out the GPS satellites, that would put a crimp in the high-tech armed forces of the USA. (A crimp only. As far as I know, they still train in the use of map and compass, and not all guided weapons are GPS-guided.) So I pretty much figure the first actual space combat might be someone knocking out GPS satellites. (I don't think Iran can do it, but they might try to pay someone else to do it.)

    steveha

  • by geogob (569250) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:07PM (#39103349)

    Moving around in space is nothing like flying around in the air or scratching around on the surface of the Earth. And in combat, regardless of its form, it's all about movement and positioning. The key always lays there from the most basic form of hand to hand combat to the most advanced stealth jet fighter combat.

    If you are serious about getting an Idea about how a space battle would look like, I suggest the following. Get the Orbiter space flight simulator [ucl.ac.uk] and try it out a little. Figure how you move around in space. Search around a little and do the tutorials.

    My guess is that, like most people, you'll get bored after the first 2 days waiting to reach a target... you'll quickly (or rather very slowly and longingly) notice that space travel is slow and complex. When most people think of in-flight combat, they think about dogfight, with quick instant maneuvers to evade immediate danger or quickly engage a target. Space, its another business. Orbits are planned months ahead, years or even decades in advance for some satellite. Even on very short term missions, you do small precise maneuvers that will have noticeable impacts hours or days later.

    The most accurate movie depiction of space combat is probably 2001: A Space Odyssey... sort of. There's just no combat, but it wouldn't feel any different.

  • by jnmontario (865369) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:10PM (#39103379)
    It's interesting you posted this. Back in the early 90's when my friend and I were in school we both took a pile of astrophysics courses (thank you The Next Generation for making me a space-whore for life). We created all the basics for a space combat game. Down to stats, movement rates etc... all based on 'real physics'. I completely agree with one of the posters above - it was too boring to ever code as such since it involved horrendous wait times, punctuated by sheer madness over the period of a minute or two, then a lot of death. Jack Campbell has written a FABULOUS set of books (the Lost Fleet), with a serious dose of reality (with the exception of FTL travel). Iirc, he's a former Navy Captain or some-such, so the feeling of combat is very real, more importantly, he's spent some time researching relativistics so there's a lot of that in the novels as well. Well worth the read. Space weapons are largely missiles and particle weapons, both of which we have in today's age - so it's only engines/travel that are slightly futuristic. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lost_Fleet [wikipedia.org]
  • by fph il quozientatore (971015) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:13PM (#39103429) Homepage
    ...remember that the enemy gate is down.
  • Unmanned (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Arancaytar (966377) <arancaytar.ilyaran@gmail.com> on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:18PM (#39103489) Homepage

    One thing that most of science fiction gets wrong is that spaceships, even small and maneuverable fighters, are not airplanes. They do not contend with air resistance and accordingly do not require a wedge-shaped bow - let alone wings. Spheres or cylinders are more likely for small ships, while larger and slower ships might afford less compact designs that would deal poorly with high acceleration.

    The second is manned flight. Hell, we've mapped much of the Solar system and been in orbit around about half(?) of all planets, without going further than the moon, or in fact leaving Earth orbit for very nearly 40 years. Even on Earth, it becomes increasingly more practical to wage war with remote-controlled drones than manned planes. Add the possibility of AI advancing far enough for autonomous drones, and I don't think an organic individual would be within light-hours of the battle.

    Which brings us to the third part: Soldiers say that battles consist of long periods of waiting followed by brief bursts of excitement. Space battles would consist of months, possibly years, of unmanned travel and intensive computation, followed by seconds of computers trying to out-maneuver and out-predict each other, followed by hours or days of the leaders waiting for news of the outcome.

  • by RichMan (8097) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:22PM (#39103553)

    If your "base" or "ship" is located it is going to be targeted. Targeted things will die in a swarm of smart munitions that shoot mass and high energy and at the same time do mecho-kamakazi dives.

    The way to survive is to not be found. So stand off a long long way. Shed heat out of system, put a cloak on yourself from an insystem perspective. Send in your drones to locate the enemy and destroy them. Do not enter any area unless you are sure it is safe.

    At the least you will be blanketed by a massive set of drones to find and destroy any drones near you. And locate and destroy any main/mother ship if it is detected.

  • by NotQuiteReal (608241) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:30PM (#39103653) Journal
    The TSA will take away your guns when you board.
  • by starcraftsicko (647070) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:41PM (#39103783)

    Everyone jumps to space opera when the question of space combat comes up. Cruisers. Remotes. Lasers fired from absurd distances. F***ing death stars. Rail guns. Doomsday machines.

    Sure they could happen I guess, but the events that would get us there remain bad science fiction. My first thought when I think about space combat though is...

    Marines. Hand to hand.

    Blowing stuff up is one thing. Capturing cargo ships is where the value lies in space combat. So how do you capture that load of ore/food/gas? Or to the other side, how will you and your crew of 7 stop those 23 hardsuited boarders from taking your ship?

  • by HeckRuler (1369601) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:44PM (#39103819)
    I'm sorry. "Real space combat" doesn't mesh with "capital ship". If you want to look at real space combat, look at what's been done with launching missiles at satellites. There's also been some examples of blinding satellites with lasers from ground. THAT is reality for you. If you're looking at near-future scenarios, it'll be the same damn thing, but on mars or the moon. If the target is farther away, it will be a larger and more expensive missile. The target will not have counter-measures. That would be ludicrously expensive with a low chance of effectiveness. The counter-measure equivalent will be a fully armed nation back on Earth that will kick the shit out of anyone that messes with their satellites/probes/colonies. But I imagine that by and far anything that is outside of orbit will be immune to aggression.

    If you're looking for space combat in the far future where people hop about the system at FTL speeds, then hell if I know what it'll be like.
  • by mcelrath (8027) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:46PM (#39103843) Homepage

    I think the books of Alastair Reynolds are quite accurate, describing fleets moving near light speed. In such a case all you really have to do is arrange for some debris in the path of the oncoming fleet (e.g. sand) and that will take it out.

    One thing that has always annoyed me is that I've never seen a reasonable treatment of space wars in orbit. No one gets the orbital mechanics correct. There are a lot of counter intuitive things there. For instance, you wouldn't want to shoot a missile directly (line of sight) toward an enemy. If he's in a lower orbit you'd actually fire it backwards from the perspective of your orbit. The missile would lose orbital energy until it reached the target's orbit. Likewise, if he's in a higher orbit you'd fire it forward, in the direction of your orbit. (Thrusting toward or away from the planet you're orbiting serves to make your orbit elliptical, but doesn't raise your orbit) One also needs to be very careful about overtaking your target. There may be tactics like overtaking an enemy by dropping to a lower orbit, then thrusting back to the enemy's orbit. A dogfight would be a very counter-intuitive affair. I wish someone would make a little space sim that had the physics correct, and let players figure out the appropriate tactics.

    All that was assuming attacker and target are in parallel orbits (concentric circles). If the're not, say one is in a polar orbit and the other is in an equatorial orbit, there is such a substantial difference in their energies that any collision would be devastating, so again just dumping debris that intersects the orbit of the target would be sufficient to wipe him out.

    There are lots of other tricks. The slingshot effect, for instance, is used to hurl probes out to the outer reaches of the solar system. Essentially, the probe steals angular momentum from the planet, boosting its own velocity. The lowest-energy and highest-speed path to reach a given point can often involve such bizarre trajectories. NASA uses big computer programs to find these paths, see the Cassini [wikipedia.org] probe's trajectory for an example. If you have thrusters, you can enhance your slingshot by thrusting at the point of closest approach (the velocity bump you get by thrusting there is more than thrusting at other times).

    You might claim all this orbital mechanics junk can be circumvented by using lasers or particle beam weapons. But light feels gravity too, so one has to calculate the effect of bending on the laser's trajectory from planets and other orbital bodies. Another important point is that diffraction from the aperature of the laser's lens is substantial when the target is planetary-distances away. Your nice narrow laser beam will be a harmless diffuse mess by the time it gets to Jupiter.

    Finally one should bring up the Lagrange points. These would probably be the ideal place to put weapons platforms, refuelling depots, etc. But there are only a handful of them, and an attacker would know where they are on approach, so would probably send the first volley toward them, before he could resolve any infrastructure there.

    All in all, I think orbital wars would involve a lot of calculation, a lot of waiting, a lot of un-spectacular deaths (e.g. no explosions but running into debris instead), and a lot of speculative offense. You want to fire before you can see your enemy, to take advantage of orbital mechanics. Your weapons don't need lots of energy or explosive power, you can just use orbital mechanics to your advantage. But you have to be willing to wait.

  • by martin-boundary (547041) on Monday February 20, 2012 @06:29PM (#39104329)
    It seems to me there are broadly two reasons for battles in space. You're either sending weapons to attack some location, or you're sending weapons to defend a location.

    In terms of war, the main location of interest is Earth, so battles would be in earth orbit, not deep space. The other locations of interest are asteroid fields, for mining. Planets are uninhabitable, and the gravity wells surrounding them are too expensive for resource extraction.

    Because asteroid fields are large and asteroids are plentiful, battles there would be unlikely - the attacker would need too many weapons to cover the field, and the defender could hide too easily.

    Cheap transport to Earth would depend on gravity slingshots and Lagrange points, which move about and change as matter circles the sun. Those would probably not be good locations for battles - even if they were, what would be the point? The resources sent from the asteroids would still have to travel to Earth whoever was winning.

    So it would most likely all be battles in Earth orbit. Since sending material up into space is expensive and even then it's going to be low volume, whoever can deploy weapons first should have a strong advantage. Then it's a game of king of the hill.

    If a nation controls Earth orbit first, then it can threaten other nations that might want to go into space. Any other nation that tries to build launch capability would be targeted easily and bombed. So having a space battle to wrest control of Earth orbit will be a low success proposition.

    I suspect the most likely "space" battles would be terrestrial. If the enemy can invade the king's land/take control of the king's assets, electronically or economically or politically, then they'll get the space weapons for free and become the new king. At that point they can send their own weapons up safely to upgrade or modify the system.

  • by kryzx (178628) * on Monday February 20, 2012 @06:40PM (#39104471) Homepage Journal

    My aunt was in Iraq with the army the first time around and had a good story. She described a US armor force who had detected a line of Iraqi tanks and decided to engage them. They took out the first one in the line, then the second one. The Iraqis couldn't see the US tanks, so they had no idea where the fire was coming from and therefore couldn't return fire. After tank 1 and tank 2 blew, the US forces could see the guys scrambling out of tank 3. They gave them a few seconds to get out and get away then blew the tank, and so on down the line.

    The lesson is, the force with the better detection/sensors/eyes can engage an enemy before that enemy even knows there is a fight, provided their weapons have sufficient range. A slight edge in information becomes overwhelming superiority.

    Applying this to space, if we have two opposing forces, and one has a Hubble telescope level optics capability where the other doesn't, those with the capability will be able to engage in the fight at a much greater distance, and pick off the adversary at will.

    Of course they will need an advantage in weapons range, too. In space you can't afford to use up your limited mass to attack, because sooner or later you'll run out, and it will affect your trajectory. It will be all about energy weapons, including lasers. And making those effective at distance is also dependent on your optics.

    So, optics for observation and optics for achieving high range with energy weapons leads to force superiority in space.

"No, no, I don't mind being called the smartest man in the world. I just wish it wasn't this one." -- Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, WATCHMEN

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