Star Wars Vs. Physics

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I love Star Wars. As I grew older I began to nit pick certain details about the movie franchise. Then I got wiser and was able to let go of many of the plot holes and the time line infractions. Some of the worst characters no longer rub me wrong like they use to. But there is something that I have never been able to get over, the scientifically inaccuracy of the space battles.

Star Wars Dog Fights

Wait, what?

Yeah, I know.

Although the space battles are very entertaining, I find it way too easy to nerd rage over the subject.

Newton’s First Law of Motion states that an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an external force. So, in the vacuum of space a ship would keep moving in the same direction, even with the engines off.

On earth, gravity and wind resistance play a large role when it comes to a planes maneuvering. This quick maneuvering is what makes a dogfight possible. But in space with insignificant gravitational force and no wind resistance, how would a ship maneuver?

Current space ships use thrusters to make subtle changes in direction. These thrusters are mounted in several strategic spots around the ship. In order for an X-Wing to maneuver like we see in one of the movies, each thruster would have to be capable of a ridiculous amount of energy in small quick bursts.

What about internal gyroscopes? A gyroscope could change the orientation of the ship and then the main engines could give a burst of thrust. The triangle shaped ship from the video game Asteroids uses this concept. If you were already moving you would have to over compensate in the orientation. Precision and quick movements would not be possible mainly because of how long it would take to turn to any degree of angle.

Fast moving ships would only be in the battle for a short period of time. Then they would have to turn around to make another quick pass of the battle. Each turn would take a significant amount of time. They might have some strategic benefits, however they probably wouldn’t be a primary attack force. Slower ships that could remain in battle and more accurately target the enemy force would probably be the focus.

If faster than light, or FTL, tech was in use, the battle would change dramatically. A ship could jump into the battlefield, target an enemy, and fire a volley of weapons and then jump out to safety. At that point, the side that developed the tech would be able to wipe an entire enemy force out with little to no danger to their own fleet. Using gravitational fields of planets (as well as other masses found in space) and mapping solar weather, it would be possible to calculate possible times and places that an enemy ship would jump into a battle. However those calculations wouldn’t be accurate enough to justify firing into an empty spot in space hoping that the enemy would jump in and be hit. One would assume that there would be advancements in other areas that would help counter the FTL hit and run tactic.

What about weapons?

A common weapon in Star Wars is laser and plasma bolts. Lasers are focused light, which have the potential to damage its target. The major problem with lasers is they are notoriously hard to focus. Some of you probably know there is a retro-reflector on the moon. It was placed there so a laser from Earth could be reflected and the time of its trip could be measured. When the laser reaches the surface of the moon, the laser will have spread out to over six kilometers. A fraction of that is reflected back to Earth. Lasers could be useful in close combat but its usefulness is reduces when the target is further away.

Okay then, what about a plasma bolt? Plasma is created when a particular gas is heated to a high temperature, then electricity is added to ionize the gas. To turn that into a weapon, we would need a way to shoot that plasma at a target. Lets say we were able to shoot that plasma, wouldn’t the vacuum of space immediately dissipate it? Well yes, because space is a vacuum, the individual atoms of the plasma would push each other away and the plasma would dissipate quickly. But what if we somehow managed to get that plasma to stay together long enough to hit a target? Well, plasma doesn’t have much mass. The only damage that plasma would be able to create would be from its temperature. Basic heat shields on spacecraft would be more than enough to counteract it. In order to create any significant damage, there would have to be a secondary impact.

Explosions! Explosives are a good way to destroy things. How would that work in space? Well, in a vacuum there would be no shock wave from an explosion. Actually that isn’t completely true, if an explosion occurs on the surface or inside a ship, there would be shock waves that bounce around in that ship. So an explosive could be useful, but only if it directly impacts the target.

Missiles and other guided weapons would suffer from the same Newtonian issues that our space ships have. They simply would not be able to maneuver fast enough to be effective in a dogfight in space.

If I ever start a band, I would want to name it Newtonian Issues.

Nuclear weapons could still be used. There wouldn’t be the destructive shock wave that a nuke is known for. But there would be a bombardment of radiation that would penetrate most metals. Any nearby targets would receive what could easily be a lethal dose of radiation. (Insert microwave dinner joke here)

We are coming up on our sixtieth anniversary of humans in space, and to date we have only had one tragedy where life was lost in the void. Well maybe. In 1971 three cosmonauts returning to earth from the Salyut space station died on reentry. Some argue that they shouldn’t count as deaths in space because we couldn’t pinpoint the exact time of deaths.

As more countries begin space programs it’s only a matter of time before our first conflict. So what would a battle in space be like?

Most people who have written about the subject believe that there would probably be a great deal of space between ships. In movies space battles often look like broad side navel battles were two ships move side by side and shoot lasers at each other. Because the loss of life for both sides would be so great, most space ship captains would want to avoid that.

So, ships would probably keep some distance from the enemy. At the same time distance would also be a disadvantage. It takes roughly 1.3 seconds for light to travel the distance of earth to the moon. Shooting at a target that far away, we would have to lead the shot to where we hoped the target would be. Although it is possible to hit a moving target, it becomes harder the more distance there is.

What about weapons?

As of right now, the easiest and most affordable weapon in space would be some form of kinetic impact. This could take many forms but its most simple form would be a bullet or slug fired at high velocity. A bullet is practical for many reasons. First they are fairly cheep and easy to make. Next they don’t require any specific technology that hasn’t already been invented. Last, it does its intended job really well. In space, a bullet would make impact and tear a hole in the target. Disrupting vital systems, damaging machinery, bodily damage and breaching the hull allowing air to rush out into space are only a few ways that bullets could end a conflict.

As time progresses, more high tech versions of the gun will be invented. Prototype rail guns have not yet seen any measurable success but in the vacuum of space this could change. Rail guns would be cheaper and more accurate than our traditional bullet. A rail gun’s ammunition is a large chunk of a metal. Each time the gun is fired it shaves off a piece from the chunk and propels it down a magnetic rail at speeds faster than sound.

Kinetic lances would be an option when you need more damage. The RAND Corporation first proposed the idea of a kinetic lance. Their idea was to remove explosive tips from ICBM’s and replace them with a metal lance that would have a similar effect. Jerry Pournelle, a science fiction author was the first to suggest these lances be placed in a satellite. Once the satellite was in orbit over a target, it would drop a lance. Gravity would pull the lance and earth together. The lance would reach a terminal velocity of about thirty six thousand feet per second. The impact would be devastating, capable of destroying a decent sized city. The lance requires gravity to work properly, so it would be ideal to take out bases on planets or moons, but not against other ships or asteroids.

Luckily, when it comes to space battle, we have not yet built an engine capable of FTL travel. So we will be able to detect all ships within range of most weapons. A more subtle approach would probably prove more effective. Stealth technology would be researched as a priority. I’m not talking about cloaking a ship, but rather finding ways to disrupt the enemy from detecting that ship.

Radio jammers would be used to block communications and sensing equipment. Maybe ships could be built in a design that would allow signals to travel past them without leaving a shadow that could be detected. There are thousands of theories how a ship could move undetected in space.

Once the two major ships begin their battle, a small with ship stealth technology could make it’s way to the enemy ship. This ship could have a small crew or no crew depending on desired results. Once it reached the enemy ship, it could cut a hole in the hull. An unmanned drone could then let the gasses inside vent out. A manned crew could board the enemy ship and attempt to take control from within.

There is another form of battle that would probably take place that I could only speculate about. That would be cyber warfare. On earth, hacking into enemy systems provides useful intel, disrupting communications and several other advantages. Hacking an enemy ship’s systems could mean a quick death to every person on board that ship.

It’s hard to tell exactly what space battle will be like. One thing that we can be sure of is that fighting in space will be brutal. Luckily, we are probably several decades maybe even a century away from any real conflict in space. Humanity probably won’t see it’s first space battle until some time after large groups of people have been living in space for an extended period of time. Before then, it would be more practical for conflicts to be worked out on earth, peacefully or otherwise.

I hope that reading this has not tainted your view of space battles in Star Wars or any other science fiction franchise. Although they are not remotely accurate, at least they are entertaining.

What do you think? Feel free to comment and share your thoughts.

Nathan Little

Nathan is a Science Fiction and Fantasy author. He studied physics and chemistry in school. Father, husband and owned by a Pug.

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There are 2 comments

  1. Interesting stuff. The took a slightly different approach with maneuverability in space battles in the Battle Star Galactica remake with the ships turning their main drive off / on and flipping around like tops.

    If you are interested in solar system wide space battles without the ability to use FTL, look into ‘The Lost Fleet’ series of books (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lost_Fleet). The two fleets doing battle ramped up to about 20% of light speed and in the fractions of a second that they were in range … used energy weapons, threw missiles and grape shot (!) at each other. The tactics employed were very entertaining reading.

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