The Physics of Space Battles

How scientifically accurate is your favorite sci-fi space battle?
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Joseph Shoer has several extensive, in-depth articles on the physics of space warfare:

thoughts on space battles

Projecting Space Battle Physics

Space warfare: Almost everything you know is probably wrong

Is space warfare really practical?

Zero-g dogfighting for dummies:

Projectile weapons vs. directed energy weapons:

Nukes in space:

Effects of radiation weapons in space:

Could the Death Star really destroy a planet?

„Sir Isaac Newton is the deadliest son of a b***h in space“

Have an idea for an episode or an amazing science question you want answered? Leave a comment below!

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47 thoughts on “The Physics of Space Battles

  1. I believe battles over space will most likely be played out on the surfaces (and in the atmospheres) of planets. Space exploration being dependent on supplies from colonies, taking out the colonies (via orbital bombing or invasion) would effectively destroy or render the opposing space-faring craft useless.

  2. I've always found the huge fireballs accompanying an explosion kinda funny. Sure, the O2 escaping the breached ship could ignite, but the ship would simply break apart, like glass.
    I really like how they did that in Ender's Game. When Ender rail-guns the enemy ice-collectors from below, they just break apart as the tungsten rods (I assume) pierce the enemy hull.
    Just food for thought.

    Although…. Kaboom, Phoom Kerplow! is fun to watch.

  3. i think mass effect and halo might have some of the most accurate space battles. Of course they do get some things wrong like the fires on the ships in areas there is no oxygen, but the weapon systems and ships themselves actually make some sense. In both they use mainly magnetic weaponry like railguns to fire high devastating rounds. The shots are designed to penetrate the enemies hull and then detonate which means that there is oxygen to actually allow there to be an explosion. Mass Effect and Halos larger fights show this really well (intentional or not) when you see shells that miss completely just keep going past the battle. In both we also see that even though the engines are still on even when they're idly floating about space they're very clearly giving off very little energy as we see them flare up drastically when the ships are doing space ship things like rushing off to save the galaxy (really cliche, can't someone come up with something new?) In both it seems very likely that this idle engine fire is just how the ships are venting the heat from the engines (in mass effect they even acknowledge that the ships have to vent heat into space when talking about the Normandy's stealth capabilities). Another thing the games do well is showing that people do not want really close fights, in mass effect we even see the fleet attacking Earth firing minutes after exiting the mass relay which is orbiting Pluto, so these guys start firing from Mars, at closest and keep the battle at a distance for as long as they can, in Halo too they talk about and in the rare space battle scene show, how long range the UNSC tries to keep the fights and if you read some more of the lore you learn how feared close combat is by the UNSC when they talk about the covenant using their accurate slip stream drives to jump right next to UNSC ships. I don't think we'll ever see space done perfectly right, at least not in any entertainment media, but I do think that some things can get it really right.

  4. To know how would a battle in space would look like you'd have to know what was the economy behind it. How much does the ship cost? Because if it costs too much, it would avoid combat – in space it shouldn't be too hard. Would it even be feasible to arm or armor up ships? Because there are many safety features that are not used just because they have low chance of being useful and high price. How far can a ship venture away from a refill base? What for? Mining? What can be rare enough to recoup the costs of infrastructure, production and transport? Time lag would be enormous, mind you. Who can be a threat in space – pirates, aliens, enemy soldiers? What would be the motives? Whom would the space pirates sell their loot? Where can they live, outlawed? Who would supply them? One can't repair a spacecraft with a palm tree chopped on an island nearby. And so on.

  5. Why would you wear a helmet in space?
    1) it's heave and makes you less maneuverable
    2) it might save you from a bullet or any debris, but the vacuum will kill you anyway after impact.
    3) you might wear it to combat the vacuum, but than again, you don't need a pressurized cockpit, which somehow is used in every movie.
    4) it might house your communication devices, but why don't you use a simple and lighter headset?
    5) it might house a HUD (Head Up Display), but that can be projected to the actual windscreen too.

  6. Ok, I have a question. I'm not sure if he explained this. Wouldn't accelerating once, keep them going forever. We just learned Newton's first and third law in class, So I thought that they could keep going forever from just accelerating a little bit, but would fighting the Death Star negate those laws from it trying to put the space ships in orbit.

  7. The form that weapons will take in space will depend on the inherent weaknesses of the enemies space craft. People often think of weapons as linear projectiles. That's a mistake. A weapon is anything which exploits a weakness to one party while giving an advantage to another.

    As to whether or not war will continue in space, I see no reason to believe that a change of location will change the nature of mankind. If you want to change the way people behave you have to go inward, not outward.

  8. 3:13 You say close proximity, naval style battles wouldn't happen in space. But then later go on to make the point that at long distances, the length of time it takes for light to travel makes long distance battle impractical…

    So the relatively slow speed of light in a space battle occurring between two different planetary orbits, would actual necessitate the need for closer proximity. And while a scene where two ships are practically on top of each other would be extremely reckless & devastating for all involved, a battle miles or kilometers apart is probably optimal. And that IS seen in films like Star Wars.

    Why make these videos & knock space battles in science fiction, if you're not going to fully think it through?

  9. Well if we did have space travel with say a few planets or asteroids colonized in our solar system, decking a ship with guns probably would work on a very small level. But if 2 opossums ships ran into each other they may just stare at each other awkwardly until they land the ground troops. Or until Defensive ground batteries shoot them down. Allow me to use Space Engineers as an Example. I have a a full fleet of ships all loaded with guns. And if there was a government with Currency and availability of resources, then you could built ships. But in a real sense when you can cause major damage to the enemy that means the enemy can probably do some hammering as well. I think we we ever leave Earth and the solar system our Space wars will be long and we won't really have massive Warships with enough guns to put an Iowa Class battle ship to shame. But instead militarized transport ships that carrier what the military needs. Infantry, tanks, trucks etc. At least that way for a few hundred years. War hasn't changed much since World War One. Same basic way of fighting said war hasn't changed in 100 years. Except Nuclear Warheads. But let's throw that to the side we don't really use them. If anything 50-100 years from now War will only involve a few Human colonies and large deployment times. Realistically it would be like loading up a few ships with an invasion force and sending them to where ever the hell. So early Space war won't be anything to amazing. Probably more annoying for those fighting it.

  10. Wow,… Finally some descent dialogue on realistic space battles. Thank you so much.

    Unfortunately,… since the majority of SF film enthusiasts are computer gamers, who have no patience for well developed stories, (not even mentioning reality),… I'm afraid books like David Gerrold's "Starhunt" will never make it to the screen, staying with the current conventions & clichés.

  11. Hypothetical Scenario:

    150yrs time, we have fusion. I think the output of a fusion generator directed into an appropriate laser emitter and focused to the width of a pin would leave a dent.

  12. Fun fact: You can hear explosions in space.

    The vacuum must be big enough and close enough though. Even relatively small bangs in vacuum chambers are heard with a pop. Even when the explosive is suspended on a string to prevent direct contact with the walls or floor. This is because the particals of gas from the explosion act like shrapnel in the vacuum and translate into a muted shockwave on impact. A bang becomes a pop, but it's still heard.

  13. i have the solution to the movment on the space on space battles like if you get the acc. like 2m/s^2 and your throlle will increase or decrease at the angle and speed that you reach for the finish speed like 12m/s and the initial speed needs to be every time this equation 2m/s.[(3,6)^2]:t=12m/s

  14. Just going to throw out the MAC cannon from the Halo series as an example of better-done space battle physics. The physics aren't elaborated upon in the games, but in the books you find out it's really a giant railgun that runs stem-to-stern of the human warships. Essentially they just hurl giant pieces of metal at each other using magnets, meaning that the battleships and cruisers need to point directly at their targets to use their biggest weapons. No broadsiding here.

  15. One of the best depictions of space battles that I've seen was in Babylon 5. Unequal technologies, weapons that are utterly devastating, and shooting at targets that were thousands of miles away.

  16. Gauss and Rail weaponry, perpetual and renewable sources of energy such as solar and theories on cosmic energy, liquid cooling and radiators to remove heat, engines that use electrical power instead of fuel, advanced targeting computers and drone technology (remote or A.I controlled fighters instead of living pilots) are all things to consider.

  17. For one, if war was common in space, we would likely all be using robotic craft that are programmed to attack enemies when they get within a certain distance. I am unsure that there wouldn't be close up battle, not dog fighting, but close battles as the example set forth that you'd be only fighting past images if you are too far away, rendering distance combat somewhat futile.

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