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Stealth isn't possible in space, but what if you just shine a laser in their eyes and make a whole lot of noise somewhere else?

The situation is this: A shuttle full of pirate marines must dock to a warship orbiting a trade station. The warship is fully operational and armed with missiles and coil guns that will destroy a vessel that tries to make an approach. The warship has radar and a suite of telescopic sensors (i.e. visible, infrared, and radio telescopes) that let it detect other ships. The trade station is also a large hub for civilian space traffic, so the "airspace" is rather full, and the warship is able to communicate with the station to retrieve flight plan data and intervene with deviants. The warship is not an invading force, and so it will not fire on civilian targets, only on potential hazards to itself or to the civilians.

These ships are operating on real technology for the most part. So no forcefields, or psionics, or gravity plating. They have thrusters, reaction mass, and have to deal with heat management. The warship also has no windows, instead, it has a layer of armor that is absent on civilian vessels (because bullets are a bigger concern than the view in the case of a warship).

A modified corvette from the game Children of a Dead Earth, a good source for realistic space warfare.

If a significant number of the civilian ships were equipped with non-standard equipment, could they effectively blind the warship long enough for a shuttle to make an approach and dock to it?

My only idea is that these commandeered civilian ships would have to be outfitted with lasers and emitters that could saturate the radio frequencies and attempt to overload the sensors of the warship from many angles. With this distraction and confusion about what is or isn't a civilian target anymore, I hope to sneak a smaller vessel up to docking range with the warship.

Edit: To clarify, the pirates can have a significant number of commandeered ships disguised as civilian vessels to use against the warship. But their goal is to commandeer the warship itself, so they don't want to destroy it.

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    $\begingroup$ What about space Emps? $\endgroup$ – Traveler Aug 30 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ Would a nuke be allowed? In reality, I don't think it's possible to do this with civilian equipment. At the start of this, the warship should come to full alert. $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Aug 31 at 8:15
  • $\begingroup$ I'd recommend ToughSF's "Stealth in Space is Possible" series. Finding a black ship with a hull cooled to the temperature of the cosmic microwave background and an anti-radar configuration and only 16 K hot exhaust, if it is burning instead of going ballistic, is an impressive feat. $\endgroup$ – TheDyingOfLight Aug 31 at 11:06
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    $\begingroup$ If you want plausibility, better add a swarm of semi-expendable sensor drones around the ship... The size of the sensor aperture is a thing, and any space warship at a fixed post (like a space station or whatever) with sensor aperture not measured in thousands of km can be considered blind. Of course this is just one more thing your pirates need to counter or deceive. $\endgroup$ – hyde Aug 31 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ This entirely depends on what sorts of "vision" the ship you want to blind has. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Sep 1 at 12:00
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How about this scenario:

  1. Civilian torch ship uses fusion for propulsion. Exhaust is basically blackbody radiation.

  2. Civilian torch ship is poorly maintained with green crew. Or so the story goes.

  3. Attitude control on torchship malfunctions badly. Tugs come and grab torchship. Torchship fusion reactor turns out, out of control, and exhaust hits warship. Warship stays put because its armor can take it and if it moves the exhaust will hit the station. It intercepts the exhaust until mechanics can power down the reactor or evacuate the crew and let the empty ship leave. During this, the warship is blinded by fusion exhaust. This sort of thing has happened before and is part of their job.

  4. Pirates come up while warship is bathed in exhaust and sensors are overloaded. Pirates had better come up in the shadow of the warship, or exhaust will hit them too. They must come between space staton and warship and so might be seen if space station has windows.


I suggest this because if several civilian vessels simultaneously take hostile actions, the warship crew will figure out something is up pretty quick. They will leave in a straight blind line, possibly taking out anything in the way. They will then turn around and come back. Things will not go well for civilian ships. Pirates will probably be hightailing it away when things go south.

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    $\begingroup$ There are a lot of possible solutions, but this concept has a lot to offer a story. It's simple, plausible, and engaging. $\endgroup$ – CeliaFate Aug 30 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ The problem is that if the pirates are approaching in the warship's shadow, they may still be seen because the sensors on that side of the warship are also in shadow, and thus able to operate normally. However, if they come from the torchship side, the sensors on that side will likely be covered by shutters to prevent them from being burned out, which will let the pirates get close. They can't reach the warship entirely, because that would require them to go into the exhaust, but they can get close enough that the warship can't react fast enough, and when the torchship shuts down... bam. $\endgroup$ – anaximander Sep 1 at 11:46
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Using lasers to blind may work - but it'll be noticed and they'll assume something fishy is going on. Other people have pointed out that deception is a much better approach.

Stealth in space is really hard (Stealth in Space: How realistic is it?), but approaching a single static target with stealth is just within the realm of possibility. There are 3 approaches I can think of:

  • A front shield cooled to 3K so that your ship disappears into the background noise on the IR spectrum. (And coloured matt black, and radar absorbing)

  • Come "Out of the sun", keep a straight line between the ship, your ship, and the sun.

  • Find a blindspot in the target ships sensors. Eg the cone of its engine.

If there's two ships, or it can read sensors from another location, none of this will work.

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  • $\begingroup$ A 3K dot on the face of the sun is pretty conspicuous, don't you think? $\endgroup$ – Lawnmower Man Aug 31 at 20:54
  • $\begingroup$ @LawnmowerMan, the Sun is really, really bright. Spaceships don't point sensors towards the Sun unless they're specifically trying to observe the Sun. $\endgroup$ – Mark Aug 31 at 23:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark which is exactly why trying to put up a cold shield while approaching from sunwards seems like a waste of time and energy. $\endgroup$ – Lawnmower Man Sep 1 at 0:05
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    $\begingroup$ The cold shield is for approaching from empty space, hiding in front of the sun is a different approach. $\endgroup$ – lidar Sep 1 at 0:34
  • $\begingroup$ Stealth in space is really easy because space is huge. It took humanity quite a long time to find a certain dwarf planet and we are still not sure if there is a ninth planet out there. Compared to planet a space ship is (usually) tiny. $\endgroup$ – Michael Sep 1 at 8:07
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You could overwhelm the sensors as you describe but it would be easy to detect, putting the warship on high alert. One of the facets of an alert status would be locking down all ship access, which foils the intent.

In my opinion, there are a couple other plausible solutions.

  1. Prior to the operation introduce a virus that would render the warship conditionally sensor-blind without alerting its operators. It wouldn't require a hack, just someone on the inside who can slip a thumb drive (or the equivalent) into a port.

  2. If the warship has a dock, odds are it's intended to be used. Rather than risk a head on conflict with the warship if the sensor ploy doesn't pan out, pirate a supply ship or personnel transport and smuggle the marines in with a Trojan Horse. That way you don't have to bypass any security at the airlock.

There are plenty of solutions, but most depend on the lead-up to the operation and how much time and resources are available to the assault team.

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    $\begingroup$ Contrary to popular opinion, it actually isn't as easy as "slip a thumb drive in a port". Even Windows (the epitome of all bad security practices) knows better than to automatically run files from inserted media (with the exception of CDs, and even then it's buggy at best). If they're running Linux, then good luck getting that to run - anything that could mess up their sensors would require sudo privileges, and for that you need their sysadmin to help. That is, of course ignoring the fact that there is a good chance their operating systems (let alone their hardware) aren't even compatible. $\endgroup$ – The Daleks Aug 30 at 22:32
  • $\begingroup$ @TheDaleks if you're going to presume upon the reader to accept space faring warships it's not out of line to introduce the capability of a dedicated AI launching a malicious executable from a portable drive. No, this would not work on a Windows machine but it doesn't need to be feasible, only plausible. I'm going to go way out on a limb and say the warship is not running on Windows 10 or iOS :) Maybe Android... $\endgroup$ – CeliaFate Aug 31 at 1:14
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    $\begingroup$ @TheDaleks - Funny enough, hardware itself might be vulnerable, no need to bother with the OS. For example, check out the "Thunderclap" vulnerability. The standard Thunderbolt ports on any computer actually allow external devices FULL DIRECT ACCESS to all the RAM in the computer. Just plug in a malicious hacking device and you're done. The OS doesn't even get involved so it doesn't matter if it runs Windows, Linux, MacOS or whatever. So this is definitely a plausible attack. $\endgroup$ – Vilx- Aug 31 at 10:14
  • $\begingroup$ @TheDaleks "Even Windows (the epitome of all bad security practices) knows better than to automatically run files from inserted media" - there was a time when it didn't. $\endgroup$ – user253751 Aug 31 at 11:17
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    $\begingroup$ @TheDaleks, I get what you're saying - I'm not trying to provide a complete solution, just a direction; there are million permutations that are more feasible, but the principle is plausable. The "stick in a contaminated thumb drive" trick has been used repeatedly and the audience seems to accept it. World building is ultra-complex at it's most fundamental level, you can't answer every question, you just need enough to suspend the disbelief of the audience -- in some cases a very savvy one, but even they don't have all the answers. $\endgroup$ – CeliaFate Aug 31 at 13:23
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Presumably the warship designers read this thread and consider the possibility of blinding their sensors, wether it be by laser, or microwave, or radar or whatever and considered countermeasures:

Distributed sensors

A bunch of small satellites are sprea out around the ship, they are all relativly small, use mostly passive sensors and are cooled to 4-5K before launch, so hard to detect. While unable to see everything the mothership with its better and active sensors can see, the emission of someone blinding the mothership will surely be detected. This would also protect against an attacker hiding behind a cooled shield.

Distributed missiles

Same as above, but the satellites are in effect missiles with a small drive and warhead, when the warship sends a "we're beeing blinded!!** signal the missiles autonomously select the closest likely culprit and attacks

Shielded sensors

The warship has a suite of sensor that are too insensitive too detect "normal" emissions, but, but can handle sensor jamming. Think cameras behing really thick sunglasses, or hardened radar receivers with ultra low gain connected to the same antennae

Gravity, Gamma and X-Ray detection

The approaching vessel has mass, the tidal forces this causes may (a hundred years from now) be detectable by a sort of LIGO on the warship. More plausible, the reactor of the approaching ship emits Gamma or X-Ray radiation, that can be detected and pinpointed by an array of sensors placed throughout the warship. Of course a graser (gamma laser) could blind these too, but then we are close to a death ray that can kill anybody on the ship.

Summary

It's hard to conceive of a way to sneak up to the warship. Your pirates need to look into another bag of tricks: bribing or blackmailing a crew member to let them approach, sneak onto an (expected) supply vessel, fake credentials, provoke the warship into boarding them (and then what? I don't know), electronic warfare against the ship ... Or a combination of these.

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  • $\begingroup$ Stealth in space is a game of information. $\endgroup$ – sabik Sep 1 at 7:01
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Assuming that your real goal is to get the pirate marines to get into the warship, I think you would get much further with deception. Your pirates could wear bustles and disguise themselves as women on an abandoned ship simulate a damaged spaceship or need to send a message / object / person to the warship, thus being able to dock them.

Note that the warship will be the biggest ship around (not counting the trade station itself), thus the most suitable for certain actions (such as having a pressurized shed were the faulty ship could land or having a surgeon on board). Plus, the warship will try very hard not to fire to any ship, even if it looks suspicious. Killing hundreds of civilians which happened to had a broken radio would not please higher-ups.

Story wise, this lets both sides to list all the technology and arms of the warship and how no enemy could dream on attacking that trade station, with the warship stationed there. Just to have them overthrown with a little trick (and then direct the warship weapons against the trade station). That is, assuming they managed to gain control of the warship once docked there.

This will probably only work once, though.

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    $\begingroup$ Depending on the setting might well not be the biggest ship around. Though with the rest of this answer I agree. $\endgroup$ – lidar Aug 31 at 1:07
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    $\begingroup$ "It's an older code, sir, but it checks out." $\endgroup$ – sabik Sep 1 at 7:00
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The problems as I see it are as follows;

  1. ALL ships will have multiple types of sensors both active and passive as listed by you. The military vessel however will have MORE and BETTER versions of these. It will also have more BACKUPS and an ECCM suite designed to counter threats exactly like this. You have to blind/defeat them all.

  2. Attempting to do so, even if successfull will alert the ship to hostile intent. Whereupon, after going to 'battle stations' the ships captain can, in no particular order (a) commence evasive maneuvers which will throw off your shuttles approach vector (B) launch one or more sensor probes to try and identify/locate the source of the attack. That probe or probes will then also have to be jammed (C) 'handshake' with the station and use its sensors and traffic control network to try and locate suspicious vessels in the area. (D) request assistance from the other vessels in a similar vain.

  3. traffic control by default will almost certainly alert the warship to an approaching shuttle as a matter of course unless the the warship has advised them to expect its arrival - which in this circumstance is not the case. This is a matter of routine.

  4. The crew, alerted to a potential threat will be armed and suited up, and the ship in lock-down with any internal security protocols activated. I say this because since there are 'pirates' in this scenario and they have captured other ships in the past boarding and anti-boarding drills will be a matter of routine for the warship's crew. (Lets throw in automated collision/proximity alarm systems and external cameras for inspecting the hull and the space immediately around it for good measure - I'm feeling mean.)

Remember the take on this is that the warship is initially in a stable, pre-determined position or orbit. (It doesn't have to orbit unless the station is so big it generates its own gravitational field BTW) relative to the station. The shuttles approach is governed by that orbit. If the warship maneuvers in any way the shuttle must adjust to intercept and that immediately gives its intent away to an independent observer.

In short I think the odds of success are very low. If the warship was docked at the station for re-supply/maintenance etc that would change the situation enormously, otherwise????

One last thing, stealth in space, limited forms and for sticky limited duration may be possible. (See the Tough SF website for details.) Obviously certain materials can reduce radar cross sections but to defeat heat emissions there are only two ways I think you could pull it off - for a while at least.

  1. 'power' down next to a much larger cold body like an asteroid, imposing its bulk between you and a known observer. Works only until relative positions change or you are spotted by another set of eyes operating from anther angle.

  2. Use a specially designed ship equipped a large supply of liquid hydrogen or similar coolant. The coolant circulates around the outer hull to maintain a temperature around that of space in the local environment. The inner hull is insulated to protect powered systems inside. Heat is removed in the form of gas vented into space. Maneuvering is via 'cold' gas jets only. When the last of the coolant supply is used up your time is up. Sensors are passive only, you have no active 'hot drive', no weapons nothing that produces any form of excess heat. Only really good for one thing - spying and almost certainly automated not manned.

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If there are lots of other ships in the area, have another ship run interference for you.

Get a large ship that has a perfectly normal reason for flying around that particular area (cargo deliveries, refueling, etc) and that frequently visits that station. Have the ship fly past your target warship, passing uncomfortably close to it (but not colliding) on its way to wherever it's going. The ship's crew apologizes for passing too closely, blames the rookie pilot for transposing navigation coordinates, etc.

Your pirates are in a smaller vessel, hidden in the shadow of the large one. The warship can't see your pirates at all since they're directly behind the larger ship. Any sort of readings coming from the pirate ship would look like they're coming from the larger ship (hiding from the sensors is much harder than simply making your readings look innocuous and uninteresting). At the larger ship's closest approach point to the warship, your pirates' ship slips away and docks onto the warship for boarding. To make it extra difficult to see what's going on, do this while the ship is directly between the warship and the sun.

The warship should be too preoccupied with this civilian ship's near-collision to notice the smaller pirate's ship. Even if they did detect you, the time between detection and docking would be too short to do anything about it. Besides, there's a civilian fuel tanker right there. Firing a weapon and accidentally hitting the tanker would cause unacceptable civilian casualties, plus might damage or destroy the warship.

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