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:…


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  1. Nice broad strokes over the basic issues of space battle, briefly touched the main problem: information. Anyone who's played an online shooter knows that killing enemies isn't nearly as hard as finding them. And with the vastness of space, the relative minute size of spaceships and the limitations of the speed of light on any scanners and you have something difficult to impossible to find once it's traveling at hi speeds. Probably space battles, if any, would be focused around immobile points of interest which had to be defended, and the advantage would be seriously with the attacked based on knowledge of any type of stationary (or predictable, like satellites) defenses. By the time a rescue fleet came the attackers could lay waste and move on.

  2. You also See space dogfights in low Planet orbits a lot. If you maneuver like that and change your Direction all the time you are very likely to lose your Orbit and get into the atmosphere. Especially the 180 degree Direction changes annoy me. And all the motherships stay "planetstationary" although they are in low Orbit. I guess real space battles would just be not that interesting to watch, as everyone dies and the Kessler effect prevents any further battles later :D

  3. You obviously havnt heard of the em drive that produce 12 m/s of speed without a thrust which breaks newtons 2nd law also the blast I don't think are lasers i actually think there positronic blasts therefore being visible and more damaging and as for the ships movements the could be powered by an alcubiere warp drive which basically warps the space around a person in stead of moving the Person through space, basically creating a mini bubble in which you could move at fast speeds, and with a form of quantum entaglment you could send data instantaneously so it's not that much possible

  4. For a trek-style space opera, Andromeda was surprisingly good at this: space battles were led at the distance of light seconds thorugh the use of unmanned drone fighters, relativistic kinetic kill missiles, and point defense lasers. Every important system in the ships was redundant and the ships were huge, but with a lot of empty spaces to make hits less devastating. No shields, IIRC, but point defens lasers and I think kinetic weapons plus ablative armor. The maneuvers also looked less like dogfights, at least for the bigger ships, with turning in spot without changing movement direction, in one episode this was even being used to lauch some junk as kinetic impactors from mostly unarmed freighter's cargo bay, with the freighter turning the bay towards the target, opening it and reverse-thrusting hard to let the package flying.

    I haven't seen B5, but Andromeda had the most realistic space battles I've seen, all things considered.

  5. i don't understand why all such videos undermine explosive power in space. Sure, explosions wouldn't be as fancy to look there, but the destructive power should still be same. Actually, contrary to many sci fi movies and even some popular science documentaries, i think energy weapons like lasers would be most ineffective. Laser even if it is really well focused, can be made ineffective by many different ways.. by cooling the hull of the ship, by mirroring the beam, etc. What most people don't seem to understand, is that actually in space you don't have to do great destruction.. even if you shoot a tiny hole into the hull or start a fire on board of enemy ship, they are pretty much screwed. So, basically railguns should be great or whatever projectile with great impact.. but any explosion should also be able to damage hull enough to depressurize the ship and probably ignite the air. And nukes would also create EMP, leaving enemy absolutely without power and unless their ships use mechanical systems not electric, they would be completely defenseless

  6. Mass Effect lore has also a lot of things right about space combat.

    They talk about lasers, saying the problems of spreading (though better optics would help) and also they talked about the choice of the wavelength, infrared hardware needing fewer replacement than ultraviolet, but spreading more.
    They talked about kinetic impactors fired with railguns-like guns at a fraction of lightspeed. Being light enough they do not almost push the firing ship (they are massive, like scaled up versions of nowadays cruisers) and can easily penetrate the fired ship, transfering little momentum but damaging critical systems.

    But the aspect I enjoyed the most reading about was heat management.
    Vessels would have large radiators to get rid of the waste heat from the powerplant, but during combat those are an easy target to hit, so they would have to be inbuilt in the hull, so that taking less surface area and needing higher temperatures to radiate the same heat, turning bright white on high power demand times.
    Combats would be very energy demanding, not being the radiators able to dissipate all the waste heat. That way engagements would be quick, even more near a sun, shooting while crew zone temperatures slowly rise. You win or scape before getting too hot (or loosing). And being on a hurry in the middle of a battle they talked about systems like releasing some liquid sodium, which would give an enormous surface area, from the front of the ship, and recovering most of it thanks to some mechanism on the rear.

  7. Fight in……space? Are you insane or are you pulling my leg? Have you any idea of the true distances out there? You fire a laser against someone on Jupiter from earth orbit and they will receive it how many days later? Will they even be where you are aiming? And if a meteor passes between you and the target then what? Try again? Close orbit battles maybe, sub orbital combat for the right to land yes, but true deep space battle? Impractical to say the least. Suicidal certainly. You hit them they hit you you both die.

  8. I think the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series is the closest to reality out of all the others. When you see Vioers and Raiders zipping around in the vacuum, you can see them flying like they are in space. They can flip their ships on a dime with a quick burst of a thruster. There's no broad sweeping turns like you would see in Star Wars or on Earth.

  9. Babylon 5 used the best space battle physics I'm aware of in TV or movies, though it was vastly compressed in terms of distances involved. It kind of has to be, though, to have any entertainment value. If the jump gate were actually a realistic orbital distance away from the station, both would be basically invisible to each other, which isn't very fun to watch. So distances are short, and plasma weapons travel really, /really/ slowly. Like maybe… 4 m/s slowly. But they do use Newtonian physics, with short thruster bursts, maneuvering thrusters on the corners of X-shaped craft for maximum torque, and tactics that such physics enables, such as spinning around to glide backwards under momentum, while shooting at an enemy that was 'behind' before flipping around.

    I've never seen any popular media deal with real orbital mechanics, however, and that's not too terribly surprising, as they're so counterintuitive most people would yell at the screen about how stupid it looks to thrust completely the wrong way most of the time. XD

    The best space combat in a video game was probably Independence War 2. And of course, for real space flight mechanics, it's tough to beat Kerbal Space Program. ;)

  10. No windows, would be another thing, if warships come to pass. They would only be structural weak points, and serve no purpose, since battles would take place across vast distances.

  11. "And do any of your favorite books get the physics right?" Check out C. J. Cherryh's Compact Space series or Union/Alliance series. It ain't accurate; but a hell of a lot closer than some of the movies in this YT reel. "I remember thinking when I’d read The Pride of Chanur and bought the others how nice that the third one was called “Homecoming,” and how that was a title with promise of a happy ending. Of course, once Sikkukkut has threatened a high-C rock at Annurn, the idea of coming home to find one’s species and home planet wiped out seemed much less friendly." from sums it up nicely.

  12. One of the best ways is to send Matrix style sentinels to latch onto the enemy craft and cut into the hull.

    Another way would be to force the nearest star to go super nova

  13. Robert Heinlein recognized this in his Lazerus Long books when he noted that, "The second best thing about space travel is that the distances involved make war very difficult, usually impractical, and almost always unnecessary."
    He understood that combat in space, from a practical standpoint, would be an impractical affair.

  14. Ark Royal series on Audible, goes into a lot of detail regarding the dilemmas of distance, time, and shooting at the shadows of your enemies (as you put it). Early on in the series the big guns are mass drivers, accelerating dumb (unguided) ballistic projectiles to incredible velocities They do devastating amounts of damage, but only really good as a surprise weapon, easy to evade, easy to shoot down.

  15. I think any space battles in the future would be between unmanned drones shaped like cubes. They could react and maneuver better than human piloted craft. Drag isn't a factor so the craft wont need to be aerodynamic. It could have thrusters on each side of the cube.

    Weapons seem much more complicated though. Gun like weapons seem like the best bet because lasers spread out explosions have no medium to create a shockwave in, but the recoil from firing a gun in space would push the craft in the opposite direction. I'm honestly not sure what the best thing to use is. Maybe something like a torpedo, that is gently released from the craft, so no recoil, then takes off on it's own to track and make contact with the target before exploding and throwing shrapnel. Maybe EMP would be the most effective way of making a target not combat effective. It's not gonna do much if the circuits are fried. Life support systems would fail. But then again, would EMP weapons even induce a potential in a target when there's no path to ground? Man, space combat is nuts.

  16. For more realistic tactical space combat, see Babylon 5. Space maneuvers that do inertia right look much, much cooler than recycled WWII dogfights!

    For SF with more realistic large scale battles, try reading the Honor Harrington novels. The author agrees with your logic and draws heavily from naval combat during the age of sail, including the protagonists initials. Battles typical take place between invaders coming in from the oort cloud after an FTL hop of some kind against fixed and/or planetary defenses and a fleet stationed in the area. Speed of light delays, weapons range, etc. are all factors that come into play. There has been work on a movie adaption of the early books, but last I checked it was on hold.

  17. “We Can Throw Rocks”—The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) by Robert Heinlein

    To clarify, I think Robert Heinlein has one of the most accurate portrayals a battle between two objects (a moon vs. a planet) in space.

    edit: Another user, Quarter4, mentions Joe Haldemans book The Forever War, which also does a good job: "They were fought over hundreds of years, one small projectile being fired and reaching it target 30 years later."—Quarter4

  18. Lasers are infinitely rechargable long as you have a sun. Kinetic weapons less so.
    But i think the real future is kugelblitz cannons. Once we can harness enough energy. Dangerous, yes, but they should evaporate quickly enough if we're careful. Right?

  19. Several options:
    1. Nobody launches weapons in space, so it will be down to whatever astronauts have at hand. I doubt they have crowbars in space. Before astronauts and cosmonauts had survival weapons, at least Soviets had PM pistols and single shot rifles, in case they land in Siberia or somewhere, but SAR expedition can't reach them in short time, so they could hunt and protect tehmselves from wild animals.
    2. If it comes to real armed conflict after some arms race, they will not look like anything, maybe just a flash from a nuke very, very far away. The rest will be just information from computers running targeting systems, weapons and countermeasures.
    3. Terrorism – put a bomb on a spaceship or sabotage fuel system. Hacking into computer system and making a ship ram a satellite or station, this looks like the most plausible scenario.

  20. Towards the end of Larry Niven's novel "Protector" there is a battle between protagonists in starships powered by Bussard Ramjets. They use projectile weapons, aimed and fired by hand, and at the end the heroes ships tuns it's huge magnetic field scoops over the enemy ship. I think that that would at the very least destroy it's control systems. Written in 1973!

  21. First, the uselessness of war couldn't more obvious than in space wars. What for?
    Second, as you said, close-up fight wouldn't only be incredibly hard, if at all, to manage, but also useless.
    Some incredibly advanced intelligence might be able to destroy a planet or a sun by some means we wouldn't be able to to anything about. But here too the question arises: why would they want do?
    So this is something we should be concerned about least of all.

  22. Did they seriously ask why space battles still follow George Lucas's vision? Maybe because… realistic space combat would be to boring to watch? And directors like J. J. Abrams are making serious bank following that format?

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