Physics of space battles

By Phil Plait | January 15, 2010 2:00 pm

I’m probably the last person to mention this, but there is an interesting article on Gizmodo about the physics of space battles. It goes over some of the basics of how to think about such events, discussing attacks, maneuvering, defense, and so on.

I’ve been thinking of writing something similar for a long time. The problem is, the more I think about it, the more stuff I think of! That means writing, essentially, an infinitely long essay, and I don’t have the time for that. Seriously, there is so much fascinating material here that it’s hard to know what to leave in and what to leave out.

Still, it would be fun. Just navigating in space is a whole science fiction topic with such depth and complexity that it would take weeks to write it up… but those would be fun weeks. And there are other topics I’ve thought about as well. Someday, someday.


Comments (81)

  1. Zach

    Sounds like we know what the next book will be about….

  2. Will

    Isn’t a blog an infinitely long essay?

    Or at least, a potentially infinitely long essay?

  3. Andrew

    Somewhat off topic but still related to science fiction. Are you going to write a review of the astronomy in Avatar?

  4. A really good site that goes really in depth about hard scifi is

    You can spend hours there looking at the pages and pictures and I have. :)

  5. There used to be a game called Terminus that was a combination economy / space combat game in which the flight dynamics were all Newtonian.

    Combat between ships ended up being primarily jousts, while using thrusters to create a kind of random cork-screwing motion to throw off the other guy’s targeting, then as you pass, trying to keep your nose (and smallest profile) aligned on the enemy, while shooting kinetic weapons. At long ranges guided missiles were used. Once nearest approach was over, the ship with the strongest gyros / attitude thrusters could keep on target longest, then would apply thrust from the main engines to slow trajectory and begin a second jousting pass.

    Imagine two ships on rubber bands, accelerating towards each other, tracking while passing and then repeating. Close, pass, slow, close, pass, slow, close, and so on.

    Gyros and thrusters were vital, more so than raw forward thrust. The faster you could dodge on the Z axis while keeping your nose pointed at the enemy the better.

    Of course, we didn’t have to worry about orbital mechanics, but it seemed pretty darn good for a deep space combat simulator. And a playing field of a 1 light year square cube wasn’t bad either. And yes, combat happened on common trade routes, or near “jump points.”

  6. Flip

    They lose a lot of credibility when they reference BSG as newtonian.

    A better example would be Babylon 5.

  7. Jim

    Start a new weekly series, Phil! I know I’d tune in regularly (as if I don’t already). :)

  8. Robert Kern

    Isn’t that what blogs are for? So you can write things in manageable pieces as you go?

  9. Zach’s right, write a book! Might take some sweet-talking of the publisher…

  10. MadScientist

    The 2D physics had been worked out long ago in the computer game “Maelstrom” (and the ripoff “Barney Blasters”). I wouldn’t advocate Maelstrom 3D – that would be insane. Hmm. M3D using a real database of celestial objects and their positions, warp speed travel, and stereoscopic view. Space is mostly space though; you’d need a pretty serious limitation to prevent yourself from getting totally lost – perhaps the spacecraft should warp on a sphere or a cube rather than warping on the edge of a square?

  11. Is anyone really expecting accurate physics from movies that continue to have sound effects in space?

  12. Big Al

    What was that early early computer game with two ships orbiting a star, where you had to try to maneuver to get behind the other guy without getting off the edge of the screen, or too close to the star? Seems like it was pre-PC.

  13. I really don’t understand the “sound effects in space” complaint. Unless it’s relevant to the plot — i.e. the characters in the movie make use of the sound traveling through space — it strikes me as being on par with complaining about the orchestral music in space (which I never see anyone doing).

  14. Ward

    There is also an episode for the series The Universe that deals with battles in space. There is a lot to comprehend when thinking about how things work up in space versus down here.

  15. X. Wolp

    B5 is what “What Would Combat Spacecraft End Up Looking Like?” made me think of

  16. Great article..but seemed to overlook Kessler syndrome, somewhat….great blog!

  17. Gareth

    Strange that computer games are mentioned, yet no-one has so far mentioned Frontier: Elite II… A game that was so Newtonian that the combat became frustratingly awkward. (But I liked it!)

    Mind you, if it’s completely accurate orbital physics you’re looking for in games, you can’t go wrong with Orbiter (albeit, it’s a game that’s about space travel, not combat). If you want to understand orbital mechanics, the best way is to try it out for yourself!

  18. Alareth

    There is an FPS called Shattered Horizon that takes place in earth orbit and uses newtonian physics seemingly well

  19. DB

    One of my favorite sites for spaceships and battles is

    Also just lots of great art from the golden age of science fiction.

  20. JJA

    Big Al,

    I think that you are referring to Space War.

  21. Big Al

    Thanks, JJA, all I could remember about it was very basic “asteroids-like” graphics, and it seems the aliens would get you if you got too far from the star.

  22. Independence War is another game franchise that focused on realistic physics in space battles. I never got the chance to play it, but one of my roommates was an engineer and raved it about it endlessly. And this was a guy who worked on ballistics calculations for a weapon guidance system at one point, so I’m assuming the series really was impressive :)

  23. Technogeek

    Mass Effect, while not having really anything in the way of non-cutscene space combat, does put a lot of effort into describing how it works — and, as I recall, does so in a way that makes it remarkably plausible. (I mean, yes, they have “kinetic barriers” — or deflector shields, in other words — but something like element zero might actually make them feasible.)

  24. Nasikabatrachus

    There’s a JPL made “course” on the basics of actual space flight here:

  25. widdowquinn

    Frontier: Elite II ( predates Terminus – which sounds very interesting – and gets the timing of space travel right, as well as the physics and combat. That made it both more and less fun than it should have been, in a strange way, and it’s still the best game I’ve ever played.

  26. Cybren

    there has been some work done in the avenue of space combat:

  27. Brian Too

    I remember one game vividly, they seemed intent upon ‘realistically’ modelling spaceship dynamics, weapons capabilities and so on. In fact I think they bragged about it on the box. Well, to get to the point, the game sucked. It sucked bad.

    The problem was that it took forever to get enough energy to make an attack run. Your engines seemed pathetically weak. When you finally did get up a good bit of steam, you’d way overshoot your target as you lumbered around, ditched all that kinetic energy you’d built up, and tried for another go. Oh, and all your weapons were fairly limited in terms of their range so that you had no choice except to get in close.

    I don’t know what the success gambit was because I got frustrated, bored, and finally just quit. It wasn’t fun. I was in danger of breaking my keyboard in a vain attempt to get greater responsiveness out of my ship.

    Maybe they wanted you to just drift in close and stay there, then slug it out like a boxer?

    The lesson I learned that day was that realism can be fun killing and the point of a game is to be entertaining. If you can combine realism and fun then that’s fine. However realism isn’t the critical factor, fun is.

  28. Plutonium being from Pluto

    4. Flip Says:

    They lose a lot of credibility when they reference BSG as newtonian. A better example would be Babylon 5.

    Yes! I loved that show and still think it had the best & most realistic space battles of any TV SF series I’ve ever seen. :-)

    The Starfuries were brilliant and those Shadow vessels were just awesome.

    @ 19 Brian Too :

    I guess that’s the trade off with entertainment whether TV, computer games or even novels having to consider the balance between the elements of fun & drama & “playability” vs realism. Looks like they got that wrong in that case. There was a Star Wars based computer game I used to have /play where you flew an X-wing fighter like Luke Skywalkers’ & while it sounds like it was quite abit better than the one you mentioned it too was really awkward at times and less fun because of the “realism.”

    From the space warfare technology developed and tested for real so far – China shooting apart one of its staellites and the US blowing up spysat 193 or something like that – it seems like humans may not be in the loop much at all and that “space duels” will be fought between satellites and ground or submarine launched guided missiles. Not too much fun or romance there unfortunately.

    Still its early days yet … we haven’t even had our first space war yet to develop the technology and tactics. Not that I’m hoping that happens of course! ūüėČ

  29. Electro

    I seem to recall Larry Niven writing at some length on this topic, it might have been N*Space but I am forgetful….BaBlogees enlighten me Plz.

  30. Electro

    @Plutonium….(20)…..Best sci-fi ever (sorry badastro, Dr who doesn’t come close)…..B5 had me couch bound for all 5 seasons

  31. The author’s site has a bit more info in the comments section. His blog is also rather interesting.

  32. Giles

    You science-fiction fans always think about war. I suggest you read this story by John Walker of Fourmilab.

  33. Bahdum (aka Richard)

    I got B5 on DVD, all five seasons. The last episode brought a tear to my eye. Not even TNG did that.

    I think it was the first Science Fiction show that actually showed maneuvering thrusters at work. Not to mention the use of thrusters to slow down.

    Remember the original Battlestar Galactica? When a fighter or other space vehicle ran out of fuel, it was dead in space. No, not continuing on it’s last trajectory: it came to a dead stop. Now that just kinda silly. At least the more recent “re-imagined” version didn’t repeat that mistake.

    I saw that “Universe” episode about space wars. The one problem with guns in space is that petroleum based lubricants tend not to stick very well to metal parts in space. So, after a few rounds those space rifles would lock up. There’d have to be some new technology to address that for any potential space fighter. (Ceramics, maybe?)

    Alas, if we finally achieve regular space travel we may end up with space wars if not interplanetary skirmishes.

  34. Nickbob

    So who’s going to volunteer to set up the Space War wiki? Maybe disco here will be willing to host, goodness knows everyone needs detailed knowledge about this very important topic.

  35. Ryan


    I also enjoyed reading all the codex entries in Mass Effect. Once you take the mass effect / element zero as a given; I always imagined the kinetic barriers as the opposite of whatever fired them. Essentially, the projectiles would be brought to the mass they were fired at (low), and consequently doing small, instead of catastrophic physical damage.

  36. John

    I hate to say it, but this topic has already been covered in far more detail by Winchell Chung on his Atomic Rocket website. If the Atomic Rocket website is not in your bookmarks, add it now.

    It’s your one stop shopping center for all things space travel and combat.

  37. There are some notes on space combat here:
    the pages that start with “SpaceWar:…”

  38. Chip

    It seems common in space movies to apply the physics of air battles, (as in WWI and WWII fighter planes,) to futuristic outer space battles, with lots of banking, diving, loops, etc. These are also visually very dramatic. If such battles occurred however, they would likely be stand-off, long range – launch and hide and not close in. (One early Star Trek touched on this, where the enemy up to that episode was never seen due to distance.) Or if closer in, robotic sudden turns and shifts that would seem unnatural to aircraft in an atmosphere.

    (Yes, I really sound like a total geek now.)

  39. Stripe7

    I belong to the relic games forum where this has been discussed to death many times. It is a fairly intelligent games forum, with skeptics, religious proponents, kids, scientists all discussing a wide range of topics.

  40. CTReader

    I’m going to bring up (shudder) books. The “Honor Harrington” series by David Weber still has the best use of real physics in space warfare.

  41. xth_scholar

    Let me chime in on the B5 love bandwagon as well!
    There’s also a lot of good discussion on space combat here:
    They spend a lot of time discussing the use of radiators in spaceship design as well as implications for combat, and a series of pages dedicated to interstellar warfare. Good stuff.

  42. ggranum

    The cited post was accurate enough in my mind for what the author’s aim was. But it has been pointed out by many science fiction authors – I obviously believe correctly – that any future space battle will be over before the humans realize it has even started.

    Even in an air-war humans are at a loss. A missile can pull 20, 30G turns. A pilot can pull about 8, briefly. At 9+G the wing surfaces can start to warp – not that many pilots can keep a plane in a 9G turn for long.

    If there are ever space battles, humans will have no place in them at all.

    simple example: If you can deploy a couple of dozen square km of mirror within the light-speed delay between you and your target, and focus and aim said mirrors… well, it will all be over in a flash, let’s say.

    This could be one or two huge mirrors, or a million tiny ones in a million orbits. How can you defend yourself? A million small mirrors could go from compact and invisible to expanded and focusing on a target in moments. It could be minutes before the light finally hits its target, and the target wouldn’t have a clue until the light actually hit them. Turn a city into lava, or Battlestar Galactica into an expanding cloud of iron vapor.

  43. The Shadow

    Not only would there be robotic and sudden turns and shifts like #26 said, one could also strafe between objects relatively easily for cover. I’m imagining two spacecraft shifting amidst controlled chaos of one of the asteroid belts; or larger ships having a shootout between Jupiter and Mars with the attacker using Jupiters various moons as cover.

    I personally wish Heinlein had devoted more time to writing hard sci-fi, but without his character development his stories would be rubbish so i guess its a nice trade off.

  44. Leslie S

    A sequel to Death from the Skies, perhaps? (A girl can hope, at least!)

  45. DB

    Someone was obviously asleep at approving postings. Here I thought I was the only one to post about the Atomic Rockets site. Suddenly when my post is approved, there are six or seven other postings mentioning the same thing. LOL

  46. kevbo

    …Ender’s Game?

  47. kevbo

    OK, ignore that., I did a perusal of these posts before actually checking Phil’s link. Was kinda mystified at the lack of reference to Ender’s Game. My bad.

  48. The title of this post brought me to the bookshelves and pulled a 1957 book Coming Attractions with authors including C.M. Kornbluth, Willy Ley and L. Sprague De Camp. There are two applicable essays: Space War and Space War Tactics. Since this is before Lasers, one item mentioned is that any ‘beam’ device that could generate enough power to be destructive would destroy itself when fired (!). There’s a graphic of an ‘anti-recoil device’ for ‘space guns’, to avoid the ship having its trajectory altered when the guns are fired.

  49. On a similar vein, has anyone seen Michio Kaku’s new series “Physics of the Impossible”?

    He’s apparently covering all sorts of things like how to build starships, warp drive and lightsabres.

  50. 50. David W Says:

    On a similar vein, has anyone seen Michio Kaku‚Äôs new series ‚ÄúPhysics of the Impossible‚ÄĚ?

    He’s apparently covering all sorts of things like how to build starships, warp drive and lightsabres.

    I mentioned it on another thread. Though I’m recording/DVDing it, it’s not very good. His starship/travel through the universe episodes always requires a ‘force field’, which should be a separate episode (might be, haven’t checked all upcoming), but he ‘assumes’ that a ‘plasma surrounding the ship’ would function as the typical SciFi ‘deflector/force shield’.

    A better show with the same title (SciFi Science – Kaku’s is Sci Fi Science) was aired some time ago, looking at railguns, energy weapons, etc. with much more interesting graphics and science.

    Kaku has gone down considerably in my personal ratings, some time ago when he did some other show (don’t recall exactly, but it basically dropped him several points in his acceptability to me).

  51. 50. David W Says:

    On a similar vein, has anyone seen Michio Kaku‚Äôs new series ‚ÄúPhysics of the Impossible‚ÄĚ?

    He’s apparently covering all sorts of things like how to build starships, warp drive and lightsabres.

    I mentioned it on another thread. Though I’m recording/DVDing it, it’s not very good. His starship/travel through the universe episodes always requires a ‘force field’, which should be a separate episode (might be, haven’t checked all upcoming), but he ‘assumes’ that a ‘plasma surrounding the ship’ would function as the typical SciFi ‘deflector/force shield’.

    A better show with the same title (SciFi Science – Kaku’s is Sci Fi Science) was aired some time ago, looking at railguns, energy weapons, etc. with much more interesting graphics and science.

    Kaku has gone down considerably in my personal ratings, some time ago when he did some other show (don’t recall exactly, but it basically dropped him several points in his acceptability to me).

  52. ADDENDUM: The single-shot show I mentioned “Sci Fi Science” (error in how it was listed) will be airing this Saturday and again on Monday on SCIENCE channel. Check your local listings for times.


  53. Cattfish

    Larry Niven gives extensive coverage to space battles in Protector. The end result being, 20 seconds of terror and 2 days of planning and sleep if you can get it.

  54. Gavin Flower

    ‘Element zero ‘is essentially a nucleus consisting of one or more neutrons, as the element number is the number of protons in the nucleua. The chemistry is rather boring because there are no electron orbitals to consider.

  55. Just me

    No one’s mentioned The Last Starfighter, so I will. Kitchy, juvenile storyline, but I liked how the Starfighter used known physics to move in different directions.

    But it’s true that most space battles in the movies and TV are just re-contextualized air, sea or submarine battles, and don’t really take into account that space is 3-dimensional. BSG did a better job, as did B5.

    I’d love to see movies or TV with ships that don’t have magical, unidirectional grav-plating. BSG addressed that somewhat, but all the non-human ships still had magical gravity.

  56. @John Paradox

    I wanted to know what it was like, in the event it ever got shown here in the UK, buts there’s a lack of info about it.

    Michio Kaku’s made some good series for the BBC – Visions of the Future, Time, Horizon etc etc – so had high hopes for this.

  57. MB

    I haven’t played Frontier, Independence War or Terminus, unfortunately, but I have spent quite a bit of time with Orbiter. I would definitely recommend it if you want to experience realistic spaceflight without actually having to become an astronaut.

    It’s how I learned orbital mechanics. Thrusting forward makes me go… up? *Think about the physics a second.* Ahh, of course! In orbit the rule is: if you want to go up thrust forward, back is up, down is back, forward is down (assuming you are facing the the direction of your orbital velocity (prograde) with your head pointing away from the planet/moon). Think about it.

    It also makes you appreciate delta-v and propellant mass issues. Rendezvous are _hard_ until you get the trick: match velocities far out, then learn to be patient. Don’t worry, the last few seconds on approach are harrowing enough to make up for the waiting.

    Other plusses:
    1. Free
    2. Easily extensible with add-on modules (including real and sci-fi vehicles)
    3. Plenty of technical documentation, for those interested, including information about the numerical integrator (IIRC, it switches between Runge-Kutta and a symplectic integrator depending on conditions)
    4. Although not realistic, time acceleration makes the big black far less dull than it could be. The physics is real, just with time sped up, and you can do without it if you want. But with time acceleration you can journey from Earth to Jupiter in an afternoon. All of the interesting stuff is in maneuvers anyway.

    I only have four complaints about Orbiter:
    1. General lack of planetary surface detail (mods do exist, but texture packs can kill your bandwidth, and I have yet to see any convincing 3D terrain mods);
    2. The collision detection can be a bit buggy in some extreme circumstances like dive-bombing the sun – which is modeled with a hard surface – at 500 km/s and then bouncing off at twice the speed of light!
    3. The physics is purely non-relativistic (hence the rebound at 2c). I would love to see a realistic, playable flight sim with relativistic effects fully taken into account… redshift, aberration, length contraction, time dilation etc.
    4. Being able to shoot at things, while detracting from the realism, can be fun at times.

  58. Jason

    Aha! The secret project is developing weapon systems to defend the Earth against a pending invasion!

  59. T.E.L.

    Andrew Said:

    “Somewhat off topic but still related to science fiction. Are you going to write a review of the astronomy in Avatar?”

    Here’s a tidbit for you. There’s something not quite right about the physics on Pandora. The irony is that the physics is a little too natural-looking.

    Watch the Na’vi’s long braids. Watch them swing rather innocently. The Na’vi are about ten feet tall. Humans are closer to six feet. Na’vi mechanics are essentially human mechanics, because the Na’vi are really human actors motion-captured on a stage under 1g of gravity. Ten-foot Na’vi behavior is really six-foot human behavior, so everything about the Na’vi is scaled to natural human behavior.

    The braids. They display pendular motion. It looks perfectly natural. But it should look a little unfamiliar, because scaling a human body up to ten feet tall means scaling up the braids by a factor of 5/3. The period of a physical pendulum should then go up noticably. Not only that, but Pandora has low gravity, which should drive up the period even more.

    But of course, Cameron couldn’t allow that. The whole movie is played up as an immersive experience. The audience are encouraged to feel like they’re really there on another planet with the ultra-realistic 3-D CGI. By scaling behavior too realistically, it would’ve defeated the whole point.

  60. Sharku

    @Just me (55): I think you mean B5 in your last sentence there, since EA ships and B5 itself had spinning sections to create artificial gravity. On BSG, both humans and Cylons had magical gravity and there were no other races.

  61. Gary Ansorge

    I expect the only reasonable weapon one could use in a space battle would be a light speed weapon, since the defending vessel couldn’t see it coming. Particle beam weapons can be shielded against with magnetic fields so that leaves Lasers. Kinetic weapons would only be useful at close quarters(in this case if warring craft were within a few hundred km of each other, since accelerating masses to 200 km/sec is very energy intensive, as in e proportional to v^2). If the craft were 1000 km apart, you’d be able to see the kinetic objects for 5 secs before impact.Plenty of time to get out of the way.Using asteroids as shields has the draw back that in the asteroid belt, asteroids large enough to hide behind are, as I recall, about a million km apart, on average. Armoring your craft against kinetic weapons has the further disadvantage of making your vessel a lumbering giant, too slow to do much maneuvering. It’s all about kinetic energy, the ability to generate vast energies(even nuclear fusion might not be sufficient) and of course, in space, the only way to dump waste heat is through radiation via large radiators and generating the energy to move a heavily shielded craft AND fire high energy weapons would produce a lot of waste heat.

    Colonies imbedded in a large asteroid could use energy weapons and kinetic weapons for defense much more effectively than could invading space craft, since they could dump waste heat via conduction to the surrounding rock/iron body in which they’re imbedded. I expect the only feasible offensive/defensive weapons space craft could really use would be stealth space mines,invisible to radar or optical frequencies and using nuclear devices or anti-matter. Then you have to maneuver your craft to sucker the opposition into running into your mines.

    Fighting in space would be really hard.

    GAry 7

  62. @ T.E.L.

    There is a “science of Avatar” article up on Aintitcoolnews – not the apex of scientific journals, I know, but apparently the author of the piece has some credentials.

  63. Hi Phil,

    I’ve been a fan of your blog for a while now – love the Moon hoax debunking stuff – so thanks for the plug! I keep getting amazed at how much my initial idle speculation has ballooned, since Gizmodo asked me if they could repost my space battle blog.

    Lots of commenters here have been echoing comments on Gizmodo or on my original blog. There are a lot of ideas out there, even without a live adversary trying to outfox you, so I definitely understand what you mean about this discussion getting infinitely long. It’s interesting to see how many sci-fi fans out there have been thinking about this! It makes me wonder if some big blockbuster movies or computer games with real physics could pump up interest in science and technology education, through the lens of fiction.

  64. Tristan

    Reminds me of the descriptions of space combat in the Warhammer 40k universe.

    The thing with it was, space combat took hours upon hours, as you had to wait for your torpedos and shells to cross the vast distances. Turning the larger ships was a slow affair as well, as you had god knows how many thousands of tons of ship to maneuver.

    Laslances (HUGE laser canon) were quite effective, as there was no warning to an an attack, as they traveled at the speed of light, so by the time you detected one, it was hitting you.

    It was only at closer ranges you could really let lose, but closing meant taking all kinds of damage from long range weapons. Not to mention, the same weapons used to attach capital weapons were near impossible to aim at smaller craft, like a fighter, so the hips had o have additional weapons for those, or fight fighter with fighter.

    Kudos for those who mentioned mass effect. the in game documentation placed heavy emphases on the problems of heat. All those maneuvering burns, the weapons fire, etc all produced massive amounts of heat. There was even a section about the different tech used to discharge heat in civilian vessel versus a military warship. Civies used radiator arrays, which would be easy targets on a warship, who had to use vapor-collection, IR radiating hull sections, etc. Really fascinating stuff.

  65. amphiox

    The thing I respected most regarding B5’s realism was that none of the spaceships, not even the uber-advanced, basically magic ones, ever used force fields.

    It should be noted that not all the alien ships in B5 had artificial gravity. The Narn don’t (no rotating sections, but they are always strapped in), and neither as far as can be seen from the limited number shown, did the Drazi. Basically only the very advanced races had magic g.

    I don’t know if this was deliberate or not, but in B5 the majority of the realistic physics was focused on the human ships, and most of the rest were in the ships of young and less advanced aliens. The more advanced the aliens, the less realistic their physics were, perhaps as a story-telling convention to indicate that these advanced aliens were in command of physics beyond human understanding. Centauri fighters had wings and banked like airplanes. Minbari tech was virtually magic. Vorlon and Shadow tech, of course, were completely magic.

  66. amphiox

    And of course, every relativistic spaceship above a certain mass could automatically be a kinetic weapon of mass destruction, just by crashing into the target planet at any significant fraction of c.

  67. BruceGee

    My prediction is that eventually, battle computers will far outstrip human pilots in their ability to take evasive action and fire weapons. I predict that, when the battle alarm goes off, the human crew will scramble to strap themselves into the best acceleration couches they can find (because the ship will need to make high-G turns that humans will barely be able to stand) and then push the “Attack” button. Then they’ll wait to find out if they win or get obliterated, and the side with the best software will win.

  68. JMW

    from Joseph Shoer’s linked article: “…combat spacecraft would likely get around the same way the Apollo spacecraft went to the Moon and back: with orbit changes effected by discrete main-engine burns…One implication of rocket propulsion is that there will be relatively long periods during which Newtonian physics govern the motions of dogfighting spacecraft, punctuated by relatively short periods of maneuvering.”

    Anyone interested in some of the tactical possibilities of this kind of maneuvering should read Walter Jon Williams’ “Fall of the Dread Empire” series. He also includes in his space battle descriptions the detail that sometimes enemy ships are several light minutes or hours away, and so characters have to try to predict what the enemy will do because the image they see is minutes or hours old.

  69. I haven’t seen a mention of Jack Campbell’s “The Lost Fleet” series, for realistic space battles (not to mention great story-telling).

  70. NelC

    Has anyone mentioned Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War yet? The warships there can do 50G and the only way for a human to survive is wrap themselves up in a g-couch and fill their bodies’ internal spaces with foam. This necessitates them being drugged, which means that the computers have to fight the space battles via even higher acceleration missiles, and the crew and passengers only get to find out about it if they survive the encounter.

  71. Loaf Of Bread

    The weakness in the article Phil references is it seems written with a focus on current technology.

    For example, the article talks about low thrust levels on the current generation of ion thrusters, which is true. They are low thrust. You can’t use them to put a craft into orbit from the Earth’s surface. But what if you could significantly increase the speed of the ion stream coming out of the ion drive? Just tossing this out as an idea. Conservation of momentum says you should get more force and, hence, greater thrust on your vessel.

    Computerized weapons will be even more important because a) a computer has a smaller mass than a human being and b) a computer can “think” faster than a human being. Superiority goes to the side with the better algorithms.

    To use a rather hackneyed cliche, victory in space is going to go to the leader who can think outside the box. Just as the early advantage in World War II went to the Germans in part because their opponents were fighting the wrong war. The Poles were sending cavalry up against tanks, and on the western front they were still thinking in terms of what worked in World War I.

  72. T.E.L.

    Loaf Of Bread,

    Raising the exhaust speed of an ion stream means increasing the power and the total cost in energy. The needs for lofting a payload to orbit would be larger than to just use a chemical booster.

  73. So everyone agrees that B5 had great physics, but what movie or show totally missed the mark? For me it was Wing Commander. But it seemed to be more of a generation gap kind of thing; like the old guard just couldn’t fully wrap their heads around operating in all three dimensions. The capital ship was an aircraft carrier stuck on a flat ocean, and their fighters were navy planes in atmosphere. It was like they needed a few more generations out there to get off requiring a common orientation.
    A really good read, as far as accuracy of space physics, is Clarke’s “The Wind from the Sun”. In fact, a Dr Beletsky of Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics (Moscow) wrote to Clarke regarding his calculations. Clarke replied that he’d only done enough math to keep the numbers from being completely ridiculous. All but one calculation were consistent within the story and plausible according to our understanding of physics.

  74. mike burkhart

    A misson in Earth orbit was in a Ps1 game Ace combat3 (the 3rd game in the ace combat series in witch you play a mercinery fighter pilot called to do air strikes to stop wars ) in this mission you are launched into orbit to destory laser armed satelites you must keep thusting in the direction of the targets you are armed with energy wepons when in range you fire and must thurst torwd the next target after all are destoryed reentry is automatic

  75. arkonbey

    I’m late on this, but one interesting thing I noticed in B5 was the difference between ‘attack vector’ and ‘approach vector’ and how it shows that JMS and team were thinking in 3-d’.

    My take on this was that an ‘approach vector’ was when one ship approached another on the same plane (ST:TNG-style), while ‘attack vector’ was a ship approaching from any other plane/direction.

    An example of this was the ‘bad captain’ (Dr. Kelso) from “No Retreat, No Surrender” made a point of mentioning that Sheridan was coming in on an attack vector when he was actually not.

    Also, no love for Wrath Of Kahn? The battle in the nebula was the first real “three dimensional” space battle. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty cool.

  76. Darrell E

    Some of the most realistic spaceflight and space warfare in sci fi that I can recall is in “Torch Of Honor” and “Rouge Powers” by Roger MacBride Allen. Aside from a FTL drive, which is necessary for this kind of story telling, all of the technologies involved with space flight and space warfare are either in use by us today or are being researched / developed and predicted to be in use by us within decades. He really does a fine job in these stories of sticking to real known physics for the space battles.

    @43 ggranum

    It cracks me up when people speak with absolute assuredness about their predictions of how things will be at some future date. Reality is very complex. Predicting the future is very difficult, and nobody is very good at it. Yes, some people have become popular, famous even, for predictions that they have made, for example Arthur C. Clarke and communications satellites. However, if you were to talley up how many predictions Arthur C. Clarke made, and then how many of his predictions really turned out to be accurate (without having to hammer it in sideways to try and make it fit), even he would have a miserable score. And he was pretty good at it. Where is your flying car by the way?

  77. MattF

    CTReader: I‚Äôm going to bring up (shudder) books. The ‚ÄúHonor Harrington‚ÄĚ series by David Weber still has the best use of real physics in space warfare.

    You might want to try “Attack Vector: Tactical”, a board game based on his Universe. It does a pretty decent job of simulating space warfare (and Newtonian mechanics) with plausible engineering consideration of weaponry and engine power, while at the same time keeping the really nasty vector calculations away from the player.

    It’s hard to get people to play; just using the phrase “realistic three-dimensional outer space combat” is enough to scare off most. But I’ve found that even kids will pick it up pretty quickly. Most of the challenge involves not overheating your spacecraft, or making sure that you’ll have enough fuel to make it somewhere safe after combat is concluded.

  78. I’m surprised no one has brought up the “Atomic Rockets” website yet.

    Here’s just ONE of its many pages devoted to realistic space battles:


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