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Pretty much every vehicle ever invented has been used for racing on at some point, so it seems likely that people would want to do the same in space.

However in space it doesn't really work the same way, the main problems being:

  1. There is no real sense of speed. Can you even get the same thrill out of a race without the ground rushing past beneath you?
  2. Collisions would be incredibly dangerous.
  3. Everything is constantly moving as things orbit each other so the track is changing all the time.
  4. The exhaust trails (or any dropped objects) from one racer could interfere with the other racers.

Given all these constraints, and possibly more, would it be conceivable to have races in space and if it was conceivable what form would those races take?

Tech level: No FTL, highly efficient reaction drives and radiation shielding. Multiple planets settled, along with space station and asteroid/ring mining stations. Essentially we have decent space tech but everything working within our known physics limitations. No warp drives or force shields.

My first thought is that something like the round-the-world sailing race might be a good model but I'm open to other suggestions.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Can you even get the same thrill out of a race without the ground rushing past beneath you". Yes you can, so do people taking part in/watching snooker or darts. I remember Arthur C. Clarke's Sunjammer, a short story about solar sail racing. There are more $\endgroup$ – Jan Doggen Feb 13 '15 at 15:25
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Depending on the type of race you want, an around-the-world sailing race could be a good start. However, I propose you look in a different direction: air racing. I'm thinking particularly of races with pylons or gates, like Red Bull's. In these races, pilots have to follow a specified path through a series of obstacles. Using this as a model addresses all of your concerns.

  1. The course is (relatively) small, and the gates and any monitoring equipment provide visual points of reference so pilots can "feel" their speed. Also, they involve a lot of turning and maneuvering, so the pilots will feel the g-forces.
  2. Collisions are still potentially very dangerous, as they are with aircraft. However, there are a number of safety considerations. First of all, the pylons and gates used in current races are inflatable, so hitting one does not present a significant hazard to craft or pilot. Also, races are usually run as time trials, not concurrent competitions, so there is no risk of racers hitting each other.
  3. The courses are temporary. They are set up before a competition, left in place for the duration (usually a weekend), and taken down after. Their configuration may be gravitationally unstable, but it should be able to be maintained for such a short time with minimal correction, especially if they are a low-density collapsible material, as implied by point #2. Smaller courses could be placed in planetary orbit, with larger ones in solar orbit, maybe in the asteroid belt.
  4. As mentioned above, the racers fly the course at different times. This gives the possibility of maintenance in between trials, such as correcting gate positions or, if necessary, clearing debris.

There is a lot of possible variety with this type of race. There would be different classes for different types of spacecraft, with various restrictions on their capabilities. Different events would have different course lengths and layouts, and they wouldn't need to be strictly agility courses. I could imagine, for example, racing between moons of Jupiter with small intermediary agility sections. All in all, if you're looking for thrills and a feeling of speed, I think this is the way to go.

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    $\begingroup$ -1: Because the question states that it has to be within the boundaries of our known physics. And Orbital physics do not allow things such as U-turns and other things that happen in air races. $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Feb 14 '15 at 10:56
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    $\begingroup$ @dot_Sp0T Orbital dynamics only predicts the path of objects not applying thrust. Clearly, these vehicles are capable of applying thrust. Gravitational fields would play the same sort of role in space races that banked turns play in car races - its just part of the racetrack. $\endgroup$ – AJMansfield Feb 14 '15 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ @AJMansfield Even though you might be able to make a U turn the fuel needed to make it would be instane in a racing perspective. $\endgroup$ – Magic-Mouse May 8 '15 at 6:06
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    $\begingroup$ @AJMansfield lets say you are going at LEO and you want to make a fast U-Turn you need to have a Delta-V of rougly 14.000 lets say in a race you want to have several U Turns the amount of fuel you need for that is insane. $\endgroup$ – Magic-Mouse May 8 '15 at 6:14
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    $\begingroup$ Lets say you want to make the U turn in 3 seconds, thats 100 G/second, i dont want to race :) $\endgroup$ – Magic-Mouse May 8 '15 at 6:18
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Unfortunately there are some tough problems with space racing:

  1. Speed: In space, you move fast--really fast, literally faster than a speeding bullet. However, space is bigger than you are fast, which would make races seem slow. An interplanetary 'racetrack' would take months or years per lap. Even the smallest possible 'racetrack,' low Earth orbit, takes around 90 minutes per lap. This brings me to the next point:
  2. Skill: We like to make racing about the skill of the pilot, not an engineering challenge. Formula 1 places ever-stricter limits on 'driver aids' every year and NASCAR basically specs out the entire car for you. However, maneuvering in space is very difficult without computer assistance. Either the pilots would be passengers simply operating the computer, or they would have to be maths professors. Even so, their speed around an 'orbital racetrack' is determined purely by the physics of the situation: achieving minimum time is basically an optimization exercise for the trajectory designers, and everybody would probably come up with the same plan.
  3. Money: Space is expensive. Even NASA's low-cost, high-risk missions (the Discovery program, or class D missions) cost hundreds of millions of dollars, more than any F1 team spends in an entire season. Plus a space race would not be all that exciting (to the average viewer): long periods of nothing punctuated by short periods of computer-controlled burns. By the way, this is all impossible to film without the networks developing their own rockets, at similar cost. Not only would nobody want to compete, nobody would be willing to cough up the money to host.

Basically, space navigation is too far outside the human scale of experience to be good competition for humans. Instead I would suggest zero-g or low-g sports for humans to play in space.

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It is all about the size*

*no that is not what she said.

As space travel happens all relative to gravitational sources, travelling from A to B in space can be achieved by something as fancy as a 2-story-house and a bunch of fire extinguishers.

Or by a highly specialized racing ship with huge fusion drives and fancy radiator fins to get read of the heat before it cooks the pilot(s).

Although no matter which of both representations fits your racing ships better, they still end up having to traverse huge distances while being in motion themselves.

So how would you lay out a race track in space?

Around the World

As you already mentioned, there is the around the world format where you set certain checkpoints which must be reached sequentially. This could be achieved by placing these checkpoints in stationary orbits around a planet and have the racers pass each of them.

Which would end up in a contest of navigational computers, the more money you got the better your racing skill. Alas you could counteract this by introducing certain rules to racing, e.g. no computer assistance, which would mean physicists would become the best racers - or every racer becomes a physicist.

Now, described above is an easy racing track, as every checkpoint is static relative to other checkpoints.

If you wanted to spice the whole thing up a little (and introduce some nasty headaches) you could put checkpoint at different orbital planes around a gravity source, effectively making them move.

Around the 'Verse

It's space, and there is literally a lot of it. So why not make them race from system to system, making certain planets or space stations checkpoints? In the end you'd still end up with most of the racing being navigation and controlled translation burns. But that's how it works.

How would racing work?

Now as you will know, the faster an object is going, the less time it takes for it to move from point A to point B. In space these distances and the speeds involved to travel between these distance are a multiple of those on earth. Also there is no friction in space, which means the only reliable break system is to rely on getting caught in the gravity well of a small object (e.g. passing near a planet in order to have it's gravity pull you off course - the base assumption underlying gravity slingshot maneuvers) and retro burning, essentially the practice of decelerating by firing your thrusters against your current direction of motion.

Making the fear and thrill of overshooting your target by millions of kilometers the most exciting thing in the process of racing.

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There's a short story whose name I can't remember that I read many years ago that took a very different approach to space racing. It was basically the Tour de France in Earth orbit. Crazy as this might seem it would be possible if there were enough satellites so the delta-v requirements per leg were low enough.

They used pedal-powered spacecraft--the pedals provided the power that ran an ion engine that actually moved the contestant.

I rather suspect the available delta-v is a lot less than the author was picturing, though.

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An orbital race would be mostly thrusting towards the planet to stay in a low orbit as possible while exceeding the normal orbital speed at that altitude. This is not really interesting. Unless a thruster fails and they shoot off into space...

An interplanetary race would depend on how daring the pilots are and would take several months.

The result will depend on the delta-V of the craft and the accuracy of the nav computer

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Arthur C. Clarke wrote a story "Sunjammer" or "The Wind from the Sun" where ships sailed from the Earth orbit to the Moon using sails driven by solar wind.

No fuel, thrust, or crazy high turning needed.

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    $\begingroup$ Somehow I see this as a futuristic university student challenge race like going across the US in a solar powered car. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Feb 14 '15 at 0:52
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I once imagined a "yacht racing league" wherein contestants in their little specialized ships plunged toward the sun, then at the last minute ("minute" being somewhat relative, depending on how razor-edged they were being) deployed a solar sail to catch the solar wind and shoot back to a higher orbit.

Elements of the race would include mass of your ship, size of your sail, your ability to pick a good area of the chaotic surface of the sun to aim for when deploying your sail; catch a good flare, you're literally off to the races. This brings in the need for good shielding, which raises the mass of the ship, which necessitates an increased sail size... Another element would be the mettle of the pilot.

I never bothered to work out the physics of whether or not this sort of race was possible, but it could make an interesting action film, where physics are overlooked in favor of "OMG, did you see that???"

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I doubt this will ever be seen, being such an old thread...but I had an idea recently, and this thread came up during an intellectually curious search.

Space racing could be done really soon, in my opinion, using the same basic theme as FPV drones. Pilots would be on Earth, and have nice equipment which would point to space. A course would be launched into geosynchronous orbit, unfold, and carry with it a number of drones; these drones would work like the the CO2 drone on the ISS, or perhaps you could imagine one of the little balls Luke Skywalker practices with.

Pilots would battle latency and signal noise to race around the unfolded track. Damage wouldn't be a problem because of the size of the drones, and speed would be fairly slow since everything is in orbit together. The biggest problem would be flinging off into space after bouncing off an obstacle or another drone.

The whole thing would be like a 6dof space game, using FPV just like drones. I have a custom controller that I think works well- it has two thumbsticks and two trigger-finger sticks, a total of four joysticks, allowing me to have all 6 degrees of freedom on joysticks. I practice "orbital racer" and "starmade", two games which accept vjoy and allow me to practice space FPV.

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  • $\begingroup$ "_The biggest problem would be flinging off into space after bouncing off an obstacle or another drone. _" deliberate manufacture of dangerous space debris in valuable geosync orbital space seems unlikely to make you very popular. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Sep 15 at 11:24
  • $\begingroup$ Posting a new answer to a question bumps the threat to the top of the front page, giving all answers renewed visibility. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 15 at 14:34

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