Saturday, December 26, 2009
Science, Technology and Space Combat
First let me wish everyone a very happy Boxing Day and hope you celebrate it in good company.
Today's thoughts are about space combat as depicted in Science Fiction.
Some SF Warships are set in a universe or science that is so different from today that no meaningful scientific analysis of their technology is possible. I wrote a short story featuring such a ship in my short story 'In Command' in Baens' anthology 'Transhuman'. My story consentrated on the ship's captain, the only living person on the giant warship unless you count the AI.
Iain Banks has written a whole series of brilliant novels about The Culture, a space-dwelling civilisation based around giant AI controlled ships that use a science so high that it makes electronics look like a stone chisel.
I play games with toy soldiers and have had fun with many space combat games. The picture above is of an Imperium battleship from the Warhammer 40K universe.
These drift through the currents of a 'warp' inhabited by psychic daemons, guided by three eyed navigators who can 'see' into warpspace. Otherwise, they are huge WWI battleships with tens of thousands of crew hauling on chains to load the guns.
Other stories look at near-future space warships. TV and films almost always get the science utterly wrong. Space has no resistance. You apply thrust to increase acceleration in a specific direction and that is all you can do to speed up, slow down or change direction. In gravity well, where all near-future space combat is likely to happen, the overwhelming force is gravity so all movement is along orbital tracks. Given that craft will have limited fuel supplies then spaceships cannot go anywhere and will move from place to place along predictable orbital solutions. A reasonable analogy is with sailing ships that tracked along wind routes. The predictability of navigation means that defensive mines and battler stations are a real possibility.
There is no shock wave in space so blast weapons are useless. The best ship killers will be bullets fired from something resembling a machine gun. Shells with proximity fuses, that fragment into flak would work. Missiles that are small spacecraft would also be a possibility. They would probably look like balls with two offset motors on booms to control course change and would fire their engines sporadically.
Lasers might be useful as a sniper device but the energy needed to power a ship killer would be prohibitive. Maybe a one shot weapon powered by a preloaded capacitor/battery would work.
Nukes would be great because of the radiation (not blast) that they generate.
The ideal warship would have no crew. People don't belong in space and a ridiculous percentgage of mass and energy of a warship design would be needed to protect them just from space itself, let alone enemy action. The mathematical nature of space warfare makes it ideal for computers, communication links to 'pilots' being used for strategic decisions, like changing the orbital approach.
Last but not least, electronic warfare, detection (active and passive) and stealth, will be overridingly important. The first side to detect and plot the track of an enemy is likely to be the victor. An anology is with submarine warfare.
1. So what would a near future space ship be like? How would you design one?
Here are a couple of websites to stimulate the little grey cells:
Finally, for fun, let's hear your version of a fantasy/ultra-technology space warship?