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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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  • 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.

  • 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).

  • 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).
  • Re:Laser Beams (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Peristaltic (650487) * on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:52PM (#39103103)
    Or ablative shielding, or maybe even spray dust down the anticipated threat axis. If the enemy laser emits visible light and you have an idea of the laser's frequency, maybe coat the dust particles with something of the same color, or spray multi-colored dust if you don't.
  • 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.

  • Re:Laser Beams (Score:5, Interesting)

    by durrr (1316311) on Monday February 20, 2012 @04:52PM (#39103119)
    No such thing as perfect wide spectrum mirrors. Even with massive heatsinking they'll burn out as soon as anything worth the title of a space combat grade pulse lasers winks at them.
    As for capital ships, unlikely, they are too big targets and no amount of armor will really prevent a dedicate enemy from putting peppering them with hyperkinetic pinballs.

    Barring exotic supertechs spaceships would probably operate on the basis of being relatively small vessels, axial gunmounts with minimal cross section towards the enemies, very powerfull lateral engines and heavily networked to sensor and targeting grids to allow them to simply strafe to whatever tiny safe zone the sensor grid suggests is availible from that metric fuckton of spacegravel coming your way at 120km/s.
    As for lasers, sure, they might work at short distances. but as soon as you can do a random walk flight and escape the beam targeting due to the 0,6second light-lag they too turn rather inefficient.

    My vision of space combat is rather few ships, but very nasty and advanced supermunitions to blow the shit out of the enemy staging area/home base, and some additional to clear any ships or large munitions passing in the no-mans-land that is the cold black vacuum.
  • 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 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 mikael_j (106439) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:07PM (#39103353)

    Every time someone makes that argument I think of stories like The Road Not Taken [wikipedia.org] (summary: aliens show up, detect no FTL drives on earth, conclude we'll be an easy target, land, try to take over using matchlock weapons, get slaughtered, humanity realizes what a bunch of idiots we've been for not figuring out FTL travel on our own, galaxy is fucked....)

  • 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]
  • Re:Laser Beams (Score:3, Interesting)

    by noh8rz2 (2538714) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:10PM (#39103381)

    If your ship is 100% covered in perfect mirrors, then you'll never be able to fire back, or even see where you are going.

    that's why they're 100% perfect two-way mirrors. like on law and order.

  • 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.

  • Re:Laser Beams (Score:4, Interesting)

    by KDR_11k (778916) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:16PM (#39103463)

    To dodge a laser you need to alter your trajectory enough that none of your vessel's body is where it would be without acceleration after the transmission time. Also you need to alter your acceleration vector often enough that you aren't predictable enough and you assume that lasers cannot be fired often enough that an enemy could just saturate the area around you with shots to get some hits in.

    Lasers have the massive advantage of lacking recoil, using kinetics will shake your craft around and likely spread your shots more than you'd want them to for proper target saturation. Their slower movement also means that you'll need even more shots at .6 lightseconds (that's 180 million meters!) to land a significant number of hits and you'll need to scale down their individual power accordingly. I don't think you'll be able to use kinetics past a few kilometers of distance and I don't think you'll be able to get them to 120 km/s (actio = reactio, remember). Hell, the recoil from firing those bullets would be enough to kill any human crew on the vessel and even then your shots take half an hour to cross the .6 lightseconds that you put on the laser fight.

    If you can build a laser with enough power, focal distance and cooling to do significant damage at .6 lightseconds you're going to mop the floor with anyone attempting to use kinetics at that range.

  • 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.

  • Re:Laser Beams (Score:4, Interesting)

    by AK Marc (707885) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:21PM (#39103527)
    Small chemically propelled shells with guidance would need to accompany the lasers. If you have a 100% uniform attack, effective defenses will be created. So even if they aren't the most effective, variety would be needed to maintain effectiveness. Something more like guided artillery than true missiles, though torpedo-type missiles would likely see some application, as sling-shotting them around a planet while the main attack is from the other side would probably be an effective technique.

    Given game theory, the answer to this question is to make a game like Eve Online where you encourage space battles and allow more free-form creating of weapons. Then the game will be the answer, presuming the parameters are accurate and open enough. But most space games assume "instantaneous" for light speed, as that's easiest. And games usually limit creativity in creating new weapons (making cluster bombs, tactical nukes, "smart" shells, such as detection-shielded mines with directional capabilities for closing in once close enough) and weapons designed to target secondary and tertiary systems (using a tac-nuke to cause an EMP, and following that up with a barrage of other weapons while electronics are down. Or just overloading sensors with the radiation from the blast. Not to mention the finer points of zero-g combat are almost inconceivable with the maneuverability and such.
  • by Rei (128717) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:28PM (#39103635) Homepage

    Yeah, the "silent space combat" meme comes across to me akin to the "there's no ice in Iceland and no green in Greenland" meme -- things people say to try to sound smart that are based on elements of truth but which get taken too far. Sound may not travel through space, but a supersonic-propagaing sphere of compressed gas from high explosive warheads do. A missile slamming into your spaceship sure as heck is going to make some noise (even a laser ripping it up). A shower of debris from exploding craft near you is definitely going to make noise. Etc. And spacecraft are often (at least with current tech) rather noisy places to be to begin with; sound isn't dampened well. So yes, "sound" doesn't travel through space effectively, but that doesn't mean space combat will be quiet.

  • by vlm (69642) on Monday February 20, 2012 @05:53PM (#39103901)

    Once you have weapon-grade lasers, how are anti-matter warheads viable weapons? Seeing how anything trying to get close would be a prime priority target precisely to shoot them down.

    Cool them down to 2.7 kelvin with liq He, make them outta composite plastic or whatever, toss them out like mines. Can't see them in IR because they're as cold as space. Can't lidar them because they're black. Can't look for occultation because they're too small. Hmm.

    Hit one, it blows up into a big cloud that you can't laser thru for a couple seconds at least and who knows whats coming behind it, such as say a railgun drone hiding off axis watching the whole thing who now knows exactly where you are. Don't hit one and it blows up your ship on contact. Something to think about.

  • 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:Laser Beams (Score:4, Interesting)

    by arpad1 (458649) on Monday February 20, 2012 @06:33PM (#39104397)

    Unless of course some bright, young thing figures out a way to use the recoil of a projectile weapon to tactical advantage. Much of the history of warfare consists finding new lemonade recipes for the new lemons that keep showing up.

    Oh, and not all projectile weapons have recoil or at least recoil that has to be absorbed. There was a fairly brief, by military standards, love affair between militaries and recoilless rifles.

  • Re:Laser Beams (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Runaway1956 (1322357) on Monday February 20, 2012 @06:37PM (#39104433) Homepage Journal

    The "large" in "large guns" was not from my post. I used the word "guns". Unless, and until armored ships appear on the scene, a standard .30 caliber machine gun will be devastating to almost any spaceship. Even more so if the ammo is explosive and/or fragmenting. The ammunition is so cheap that you can spray and pray a large volume of space with the thing, for little cost. The greatest drawback to this approach is, the cost of transporting all that ammo. The problems with recoil are manageable with fire discipline, I would imagine.

    Don't get me wrong here - energy weapons will be more and more important, militarily, as technology progresses. I just don't see lasers replacing guns for a long, long time to come. Even then, when the best equipped and best supported navies have cast away their last guns, less wealthy forces will probably create situations where their obsolete weapons can overcome the better equipped "Imperial forces".

    The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest as much. The US/NATO forces are vastly better equipped than the insurgents, but the US/NATO still suffer casualties. What's that term? "Improvised Explosive Devices".

  • 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.

  • Re:Laser Beams (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Opportunist (166417) on Monday February 20, 2012 @08:21PM (#39105421)

    Guns are great as long as you don't take into account one problem that they share with lasers: Heat.

    Heat is easy to dissipate on a planet with an atmosphere. Heat sinks, whatever shape they might take, work wonders in an environment where you have a medium to take said heat and move it away. Be it air or even preferably water, any medium will do as long as it somehow moves heat away.

    You lack exactly this medium in space. There is no way to dissipate heat but by radiation. Which is surprisingly little.

    Your problem is that pretty much anything creates entropy, and hence heat. Propulsion solves this problem by simply tossing the hot stuff out behind. It might work if you somehow manage to transfer the heat from the propellant explosion into the shell, otherwise... well, try to get rid of it.

    Lasers actually increase that problem. Since there's nothing you could possibly load with the heat and jettison.

  • Re:Where? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by God'sDuck (837829) on Monday February 20, 2012 @09:07PM (#39105757)

    Current space ships have extremely little ability to adjust their trajectory on more than a very occasional basis.

    Yes. And assuming you have a laser or relativistic weapon, even with an amazing ability to dodge, the first to detect will fire and "simultaneously" (from the target's perspective) obliterate the target before the target notices they are even under attack. I'm assuming near-term space combat would be decided by stealth, not firepower: anybody detected is destroyed. Probably the only way to return fire would be to have drone fleets surrounded by dust, so that somebody survives to see the laser passing through the cloud and get some sense as to the direction it came from.

    Also, it's possible that any significant combat in orbit would destroy everybody involved: see Kessler Syndrome/ablation cascade [wikipedia.org].

  • Re:Laser Beams (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jnaujok (804613) on Monday February 20, 2012 @10:42PM (#39106281) Homepage Journal
    Actually spraying a fine mist of water over the system is ideal -- the vacuum causes the water to boil away, absorbing 512Kj/Mol of heat away from the system, and the steam boils away into the vacuum. This water vaporization system is exactly how the Apollo astronauts kept cool on the moon.

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