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I was reading James Blish again the other day and came across a passage wherein he suggested, with all seriousness, that the only article required to create a new age of piracy was ships that didn't require fuel. It further suggested that the only reason the Golden Age of Piracy happened at all was that sailing ships needed only the wind to take them and that the age ended because steamers needed fuel. I've seen others suggest that as long as you have lawless ports where you can fence your stolen goods that is all you need for piracy to run rampant.

So I decided to look at the actual history of piracy these are the four factors that seem, to me, to have led to its rampant heyday:

  • The crews, there was a ready supply of the skilled but desperate, both at sea and on shore.

  • Ships that could sail long distances, especially compared to the distances between ports, without making port and when they did "port" for anything but the most strenuous repairs could be any sheltered bay where clean water and food could be found.

  • Ships that when they did need major repairs could be serviced with relatively cheap, and abundant materials.

  • Goods (in coastal towns) and cargoes (on other ships) to take and ports to sell them in.

With those factors in mind I'd like to consider a case study, towards the end of the Federated Human Space timeline.

There are three basic phases to the future history in this universe:

In the first few decades of our expansion into space the authorities were very free with what left Sol and many colony worlds with cutting edge technology were planted in far flung star systems that have rarely been heard from since.

After humanity met their only extraterrestrial neighbours they took to something of a war footing, expansion slowed and a very successful program to limit the rate of colonial spread and technological advancement was put in place. The Continuity Program aimed to keep technological artifacts interchangeable across Federated Space and as far beyond as possible and to keep human populated star systems as densely packed as space allowed in case they ever had to defend the colonies from their worryingly reticent neighbours. As part of the program they keep the production of many vital components centralised and they took pains to round up ships that had been retired so they couldn't be captured and studied by their possible adversaries.

Fast forward to the era after the Sunderer Crisis and Continuity still keeps a lid on humanity in many arenas, though for very different reasons, but there are several hundred decommissioned/mothballed hulks in the inner systems (those star systems within 15 Light Years of Sol) alone, and there has been substantial skill leakage out into the colonies, many parts of those hulks can be reused, and ships built from scrap have become viable.

The situation as compared to the Golden Age of Piracy factors I have identified are as follows:

  • Starship crews have become a breed apart from their planet bound cousins, their opportunities are constantly growing but there are also always ventures that go belly up leaving a few rogues haunting the watering holes of docking stations looking for work at any given time. Crews tend to pull together in times of trouble but they also have a certain fierce rivalry to the way they conduct business as usual.

  • The ships in the setting do have comparable relative ranges to those at the height of the Age of Sail in terms of being able to run between several ports without any need to resupply and they don't need any kind of port except when they need major repairs.

  • Most of the materials needed to service starships are now readily available in a number of places outside direct government control, along with those with the skills to use them.

  • Cargoes exist that can be taken with relative ease in transit. Much of the trade is in raw bulk materials, mostly pure element stock for molecular printers, value added goods like art, alcohol and fine weaving whose value is in the fact they are made by hand or that they come from a certain place, and large scale integrated systems like interplanetary ships and space habitats. Of those goods the most easily stolen are the elemental stock and the integrated systems but all can be sold on if they can be moved far enough fast enough, which usually they can. The equivalent of shore raids in space probably involve hitting habitats and are probably (read certainly except under very strange circumstances) impractical.

So does the situation after the Sunderer Crisis support the idea of space piracy?

In answering please consider both raiding ships for interstellar cargoes and the raiding of in-system shipping by local vessels.

Additional data that may be useful:

  • The average travel speeds are roughly 4C but the specific travel time for any given trip is highly unpredictable.
  • Travel is completed using jumpdrives in increments of 5LY or less per jump to maintain an acceptable level of unpredictability, longer jumps are less predictable and prone to larger deviations in jump time.
  • While in jump the ship and its crew experience no time, the trip is instantaneous for the travelers.
  • Because of the nature of the jumpdrives in use interstellar ships tend to be as big as the support facilities on their design consideration route allow, topping out slightly south of 50miles long due to one particular facility being standardised to that size.
  • By the era being discussed humanity is still concentrated in the inner systems, three jumps (15LY) from Sol, but has successful colonies in the trade route network out into the 25-30LY band.
  • There is a reactionless drive effect as a secondary function of the jumpdrive technology but that function can't be used near large masses, including but not limited to planets, moons, most asteroids, the drive cores of other ships and most of the larger space habitats.
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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Oct 30 at 3:29

12 Answers 12

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Highly Unlikely

In the real world throughout history, in order for a vehicle to get from point A to point B it must trace a continuous path, direct or otherwise, through three-dimensional space between the two points. If trade winds, land masses, mountain ranges, clouds of volcanic ash or hostile territories limit the possible routes, then a "pirate" can predict the path and attempt an intercept at some point outside of the direct control of the protective forces at the departure and destination points.

The huge difference in this situation compared to real world travel is the jump drive. Now the vehicle can avoid all the risks associated with the path in between point A and point B completely. The only "real world" space it needs to traverse is to a safe jump distance from planets, habitats and so on. (It was only specified that there was a proximity limitation for the reactionless drive, but if there is no limit on jumping close to other masses then raiding habitats is very likely rather than the opposite.)

What this means is that a port governing body only needs to focus on controlling its local space out to the safe jump radius, whether that is the "100 diameters" rule from the Traveller roleplaying game or some other distance. The governing body does not even need to control the entire sphere (although it's probably a good idea), it just needs to provide a small number of protected corridors between the cargo transfer stations and the safe jump distance. Basically stick a few heavily armed battlestations orbiting just outside safe jump distance and direct outgoing merchants to head towards one for its jump point. (Also maintain a constellation of observation / early warning satellites and mobile forces.)

The second huge defence against piracy is Newton. Spaceships are totally unlike craft that travel on land, sea or in the air, because their speed is not constrained by a surrounding medium. Spacecraft hurtle through space at mind boggling speeds that our human minds have difficulty grasping intuitively, but outside of when they are boosting to orbit they typically have quite low acceleration compared to Earth-side vehicles. For maximising movement through the vacuum of space, what matters much more than peak thrust is total delta v. A craft may only be able to accelerate at 0.01 G, but if it can maintain that acceleration for 50,000 seconds then it has 10 times the travel potential of a craft that can accelerate at 1 G for 50 seconds.

So even if the pirates have long range weapons so it is a credible threat, pirates cannot just tell a ship to "stop or we'll shoot", because "stopping" will probably take hours or days. Instead, pirates need to close in with a target, match velocities and dock. (Even if it's not needed for artificial gravity, spinning a ship on its axis is a really good way to make hostile docking attempts really difficult.) They cannot do this unless their ships have vastly better acceleration than their prey, which is not likely for "mothballed hulks". They want to be really, really careful, because apparently most of these ships are 80 km long, which means the energies involved are massive but they also need to really, really quick so the navy can't respond to the calls for help and intercept and/or track them. ("Really quick" means taking only a day or so to match velocities after entering the detection range of the target on a vector that clearly indicates that they are up to no good.)

TL;DR - provided that destinations have defensive forces to control local space, jump ships are practically immune to attack. In-system craft are really difficult piracy targets unless the pirates have vastly superior acceleration compared to their targets.

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  • $\begingroup$ " is the jump drive. Now the vehicle can avoid all the risks associated with the path in between point A and point B completely." Depends on the "jump" technology limitation - not unusual to assume you cannot initiate a jump around large masses, so that jumps in/from the neighborhood of even asteroids (much less planets) is usually forbidden (energetically or by the risks involved in doing so) $\endgroup$ Oct 28 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi I agree, thought I had made that clear, evidently not. The issue is that the only "danger zone" is the safety distance. To use (again) the Traveller RPG example - if a ship cannot jump within 100 diameters of a planet then it means that a ship travelling from low orbit around Earth (diameter <13000 km) to a 100 km diameter planetoid orbiting Proxima Centurai can only be potentially threatened during the 1,300,000 km journey at the start and the 10,000 km journey at the end, rather than being threatened for the entire 4+ light years. $\endgroup$ Oct 28 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ The mothballed ships would be stripped for spares rather than used as ships but the point stands because there are no limits on Delta V, and I'm reasonably sure acceleration is going to be limited by crew physiology rather than engine or structural performance and that goes for all. With no reliable way to know exactly where a ship was coming out of jump ahead of time you couldn't target it successfully and in the case of a jump ship trying to bag an interplanetary ship, or even a station on a fixed orbit, you can't hit a target time accurately to emerge in the right place. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Oct 29 at 10:18
  • $\begingroup$ pirates cannot just tell a ship to "stop or we'll shoot", because "stopping" will probably take hours or days. Stopping is space doesn't make any sense: at best you can have a velocity of 0 in some frame of reference. $\endgroup$
    – Abigail
    Oct 31 at 17:23
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With your conditions I don't think widespread piracy would be feasible. Too easy to escape and no way to ambush goods carrying ships, as they can immediately jump in any direction. That way only - though still remote - possibility is in-system piracy, but this would be much too easy to interdict by local authorities.

In the age of sail the pirates were operating either along trade routes or at specific choke points.

The reason for the former is that ships carrying cargo and/or passengers need to get from point A to B as fast as possible, especially since they weren't fast. This was due to the limited capacity of consumables, especially food and drinking water. If any of these ran out or trip was prolonged, everyone was in serious danger. While I was doing research for different topic (transport in slave trade), I was kind of shocked that average mortality on average cruise was 8% for free passengers, 15% for slave trade. Normal cruise was usually eventless with no deaths (or maybe one or two of the passengers or slaves succumbing to conditions), but every so often a disease broke out or trip taking longer caused food rationing or shortage, causing in turn mass casualties (up to 50%-60% of people on board, passengers and crew alike). Also, that mortality numbers included people dying while accommodating to new place or recovering from trip hardships, too, and that could be even months after arrival.

So quicker the travel, the better, but of course that means geographically it will be along very specific route and with obvious destinations it's even more predictable. At sea there's really no way to disengage from pursuing ships if 'they're faster; in deep space - as mentioned - one just jumps away in random direction. There's literally no way to ambush someone en route.

Choke points are obvious as well - one can see it even today in piracy in the Malaya area or Gulf of Aden (with Somali pirates), but even in Gulf of Oman (though this would be rather state piracy).

In general, even today piracy exists and it's basically because merchant shipping is severely constrained in what defensive measures they can deploy (by laws of country they fly the flag). Though there are always options like Convoy Escort Programme Ltd - private navy, offering escort through "pirate infested waters" for a fee.

So, going back to your question, none of this will apply, except barely for choke points (which would be any sufficiently large mass like moon or a planet or other ship), unless you force all the interstellar traffic to be constrained to, say solar plane of ecliptic. There is literally too much space to cover and people do not realize how BIG space is.

This, of course, works for in-system piracy - locals raiding ships and then go into hiding in an asteroid belt, but there's one serious drawback to it - you can't really hide in space. Even mediocre telescope is AWESOME in space, and really just minor investment in basic surveillance net would at the very least detect such acts (of course with all the drawbacks of STL of imagery), giving enough to local authorities to pick up the trail. Main reason is that range is not really limited, and with high enough resolution every object in solar system, even quite small, can be detected and tracked. And raiders would have to invest heavily in countermeasures, and this is definitely not something that could be cobbled in an asteroid mine's workshop...

Same visual detection systems can be mounted on every ship, too, and unless you're introducing some kind of FTL sensors, merchant detecting incoming ships from really long range and can, by doing very minute course corrections, avoid intercept long enough to be able receive support.

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    $\begingroup$ "people do not realize how BIG space is." and then "you can't really hide in space. Even mediocre telescope is AWESOME in space" We haven't yet discovered all the major asteroids or planetoids in the Oort cloud, we haven't seen Oumuamua coming, heck we don't have a complete inventory of bodies passing close enough to Earth to become a potential danger. I'm quite afraid that the "high enough resolution every object in solar system, even quite small, can be detected and tracked" will act against you when it comes to the time required to do that detection. $\endgroup$ Oct 28 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi you're quite right. However, as far as I know it's the processing capabilities that constrains cataloguing the Solar System's celestial bodies, as well as the fact that we don't have a lot of great telescopes and all of them are planned for years in advance for tasks, so what you mention here is a limited resource problem. As far as the time required, you are also correct, and I did indicate that problem as far as STL limit, but otherwise resources should be quite readily available for the task my solution was created for. $\endgroup$
    – AcePL
    Oct 28 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ Let me put it this way "space is so effing big that if you don't know in what direction too look, it's only a matter of chance that you'll find what you seek". Yes, every telescope is one ticket in the lottery, but compute how many telescopes you need to insta detect a 500m ship anywhere on a sphere with a radius of 0.5AU around the detection point with "enough resolution: $\endgroup$ Oct 28 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ if that ship fires up its drive, detection will be quite a lot faster than for a cold rock. $\endgroup$
    – ths
    Oct 28 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ re: detection ( projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/spacewardetect.php ) [Tv-tropes-level time sink warning] $\endgroup$
    – Yorik
    Oct 28 at 18:38
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Another thing that limits piracy in this setting that a 50 mile ship (assuming it's mostly cargo space) will take years to unload of all it's cargo at best, let's say for the sake of argument that the 50 mile ship is only 1 mile wide and 1 mile tall (50to1 ratio is extreme).

A standard shipping container is 8 feet wide, 40 feet long and 9 feet 6 inches tall (and if the cargo is outside containers it will take much much longer to unload), this means that means that there can be a total of 2417580000 if the ship is 100% containers, even if you say 50% of the ship is used for things other then storage that still comes out to having 1208790000 (1.2 billion) containers on board that the pirates will need to unload, seeing how the entire world containers are estimated to have 170 million containers I'm pretty sure that if someone stole 10 times the entire world shipped goods he won't have the years needed to unload it all before the multiple worlds who had their entire economy stolen will come hunting for him gun blazing.

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    $\begingroup$ Nixe catch! ;-) Size matters takes on new meaning in this instance. $\endgroup$
    – AcePL
    Oct 29 at 6:09
  • $\begingroup$ No you could never unload that kind of cargo from inside a ship which is why you don't put it there to start with, you dock cargo containers that have their own engines to the outside of the ship, being exposed to vacuum is not the problem that sinking is and in this case a lot of those "containers" are actually space ships, habitat modules and solid multi-tonne lumps of pure (insert hard to find chemical element here). Unloading safety time is still limited by light lag on piloting signals of course so you have to get close to the target station if you want to unload fast. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Oct 29 at 11:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Ash that still requires logistically moving 10 times the cargo containers\ship that exist on earth right now... that's not something a small crew can do and not something that will be ignored by the planets they stole it from... the point being is that it's too much of an economical impact for anyone to let them survive doing it more then once... you can't have pirates if the first time they raid a ship they are hunted to extinction $\endgroup$
    – cypher
    Oct 29 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ @cypher It's not something the crew ever expect to do themselves, which gives me an idea for a story, thanks. I need to have a think about how much of an impact it would actually have relative to habitat swarm economies because you make a good point that if anyone took enough they couldn't be allowed to spend it. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Oct 30 at 3:43
  • $\begingroup$ Expect to do themselves or sell the pirated ship for someone else to do makes no difference, The thing can basically have a death cursed on it... whoever steals a ship that contains 10 times the whole of the earth shipping cargo will simply have the owner after him... and in this case the owner has so much resources he can afford to put 10 times the earth cargo on a single unescorted ship... there is no way anyone pirate/seller/buyer/whatever that is even lightly related to this piracy that will survive long enough to enjoy even a single penny of xe's ill gotten gains. $\endgroup$
    – cypher
    Oct 30 at 19:38
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Does the situation after the Sunderer Crisis support the idea of space piracy?

No it does not:

50 mile long ships is your biggest limiting factor

While Jump Drives could be handwaved away with some manner of jump inhibitor technology, 50 mile long ships utterly destroys your "The crews, there was a ready supply of" and "Ships that when they did need major repairs could be serviced with relatively cheap, and abundant materials" criteria. Part of forming a pirate crew means recruiting enough lawless people without attracting the eye of law enforcement, and part of a ship being cheaply repairable means that you don't need to bring in a lot of outside labor to fix up your ship.

One of the biggest factors in why the age of piracy was so successful was because a pirate ship could be small and cheap and run by a small crew, with minimal skills, on a small budget. This means that pirates did not have to start off rich to get started. Rich people have no reason to invest in something as high risk as piracy.

A man-made object the size of a 50 mile long ship would take hundreds of billions of manhours just to get out of a mothballed state performing enough routine maintenance and inspections to get the ship up going. Even if you assume extraordinary amounts of automation, it would still require thousands if not millions of highly trained crewmen to oversee the automated processes to make sure they are operating to spec. You can't simply recruit that many specialized laborers for a common clandestine cause without getting yourself caught by authorities.

What's worse is if you need to make any sort of extraordinary repairs. With only a few of these ships in service at any given time, even if the materials are cheap, the facilities capable of conducting repairs on this scale are very few in number... so the second an illegally operated ship shows up for a major repair, it will be instantly obvious and authorities will be notified. If pirates can't find a sketchy, no questions asked, discount port to operate out of, they will not be able to perform critical repairs & maintenance.

But what if we handwave away the maintenance?

Even if you assume a flawless automated maintenance system allowing these ships to be run by a very tiny crew... they still need the manpower to actually perform piracy. While a ship this size might operate with small enough of a human crew to stay under the radar, official merchant ships have no such limitation. The volumes these ships can haul is so ridiculous, that you could fit a million space marines and 10s of thousands of fighters/bombers on board, and barely put put a dent your profit margin. Since illegal crews like pirates have to stay small to stay covert, they would be hopeless outmatch by what an official ship going through legal channels may be able to muster.

How going smaller is better for piracy

It is better to make ships much smaller and more numerous: Instead of the old hulks just being a few hundred of these 50 mile behemoths, scale them down to just a few hundred feet, but make it so there are millions or even billions of these old derelicts floating around for anyone to get their hands on. With there being so many, no one will notice when one goes missing, and when 1 of the 10,000 ships that showed up in your planet's orbit today is a pirate, there may be hundreds of possible places for him to pull in for repairs and to sell goods, and only one of those many places needs to be unscrupulous enough to ask no questions. Even if only having 1 place able to service warp drives is important to your story, this is still okay if that 1 place has millions of docks for ships to go into for repairs run by millions of separate maintenance teams.

While there is technically no reason a setting can not have 50 mile long ships and still have piracy, the pirates will be having nothing to do with those. Pirates need smaller ships and smaller prey to be successful.

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    $\begingroup$ Size of ship and size of crew are not correlated. Here on Earth, the Seawise Giant and the Santa Maria had similar-sized crews despite the Santa Maria weighing less than the Seawise Giant's rudder. With sufficient automation, a 50-mile ship would probably also have the same 40-person crew as the two aforementioned ships. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Oct 28 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark, I took this into account with my crew size estimates. The Seawise giant needed 40 people to sail from 1 port to the next, but had very minimal self maintenance capacity. Once it got there, it would take many tug boats and shore-side crews to get the ship into port, and properly inspected and repaired before its next journey. The OP specifically said a requirement of a pirate ship is self maintenance, and for a ship the size of many large cities wrapped into one, you will need a huge crew just to be able to perform routine inspections of all the possible failure points... $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Oct 28 at 21:57
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    $\begingroup$ I think size is a factor, but not In a way you're implying. I think automation is the way to go and thus size would not be a problem from this POV. I'd say tech level needs to be insane to build something this big without it not tear itself apart just when near any grav well, let alone when firing off engines. Also, speed would be minimal, due to insane power needed for even tiny delta V. Reactionless drive would help, but with limitations imposed not usable. $\endgroup$
    – AcePL
    Oct 29 at 6:28
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    $\begingroup$ the vacuum of space does pose its own issues. When not spending time in jump, your vessel is exposed to the damaging effects of micro meters and cosmic radiation. Over time your hull will get pitted and embrittled and electronics will degrade. Even with advanced alloys and materials, things will break down. With most shipping companies skimping on servicing costs, It would be cheaper to keep a full crew on board rather than risk $100's of trillions in cargo to interstellar space when the automated maintenance backup system (since the main system is probably already down) to fail & get stranded $\endgroup$
    – Sonvar
    Nov 1 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Ash But you are using derelict ships. While a 500 year old ships in active service may only be 10 years old in practice. The 500 year old hulk that was mothballed 300 years ago is 300 actual years old. After that long, many of the electronic components on a derelict ship will stop working even without any outside forces acting on it due to the effects of pressure welding, quantum tunneling, radioactive decay, etc. So even if there are hundreds of abandoned ships, most will require a huge effort to get back into working order after just a few decades in space. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 1 at 19:42
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Your best bet might be hijacking

Piracy proper doesn't seem feasible in your world -- er, universe. To get the goods off a 50-mile-long ship, you're going to need another 50-mile-long ship to take it... except as you mentioned, the jump drives of large ships interfere with one another. Unless a pirate has some means of keeping their hulk "cloaked" in a common jump waypoint area, only warming up their jump drive when another ship appears (not to actually fire, but just to cause interference), they're not going to have any means of stopping and approaching the target before it jumps off again.

Instead, I posit that your pirates will lurk in squadrons (probably 10-30) of tiny interceptor ships on the periphery of these jump waypoints. They lie in wait, and when a ship pops in, they use their vastly superior speed and maneuverability to approach and dock to the victim before they can align and jump off again. Using technology scavenged from the mothballed hulks, they can develop special interceptors; perhaps one is designed to interfere with jump drive operation (thus disabling the jump drive as soon as it's attached, so the target doesn't jump off while they're attempting the hijacking), while others are literal can openers that attach to and punch through the hull. The pirates then board the target ship armed to the teeth, and capture the crew.

Once the pirates have control of the target, all their ships are safely attached to it and they jump off to their "hideaway" with the new ship. If they have certain morals they can transfer the crew to a smaller ship and go dump them at some backwater station... or lacking such morals they can just jettison them. With the ship safely tucked in their hideaway, they can transfer and disperse valuable cargo at their leisure, and then scavenge it for repair parts as well as perhaps any new technology they don't yet have.

The best defenses against hijacking will be:

  • Navy patrols at waypoints: Common jump waypoints should be actively patrolled, specifically scanning for stealthed ships. Patrols should have larger ships that can legitimately challenge hulks, as well as fighters/interceptors that can chase off smaller ships. Interesting twist -- crew of a patrol doesn't feel they're getting paid enough, decide to mutiny and become pirates!
  • Armed crews or even security teams: on a 50-mile-long ship, why not have 20 extra people on board that just sit around playing cards with guns strapped to their backs? For they most part they're just getting paid to play cards, but if a crew tries to hijack this ship it may not turn out well for the hijackers.
  • Small-caliber defense turrets: automatic targeting turrets all over the ship that are small enough to track even the fastest interceptors (with perhaps a few larger turrets in case the pirates bring any bigger, better-armored ships to bear). Take 'em down before they get a chance to board.
  • Quarantine systems: anywhere a hull breach is detected, heavy security doors close off that area of the ship, and then the environment can be made hostile in a way that overwhelms any personal-sized protection (for example, overheating the quarantined section to 200-300°C which would likely overwhelm an environmental suit's climate controls before plasma torches/etc could break through the security doors). Might occasionally cause some damage to the ship or more rarely the loss of a crew member or two, but better than losing the whole ship and possibly its crew.
  • Tracking/distress beacons: more of a deterrent than anything else, if the crew activates this (or the ship activates it automatically), it summons help or perhaps passively transmits (via quantum comms or some other virtually undetectable means) its coordinates so the authorities can track the ship back to where the pirates have taken it, and shut them down by whatever means necessary. Not as helpful in protecting the crew/cargo of the ship itself, but has potential to disrupt future operations, and hopefully increase the risk of hijacking to unacceptable levels.
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I think you're overlooking a few things that made pirates successful in the Golden Age of Piracy.

Impressment

It wasn't an abundance of "skilled but desperate" people. Nations practiced impressment, which was basically semi-permanent slavery. Grab a guy, make him work on a ship. He's stuck there for months, if not years, learning skills and making a wage but otherwise where he doesn't want to be. They didn't do this because there were a lot of skilled sailors around, they did it because there wasn't nearly enough. Many a pirate was a former impressed sailor.

Trade Winds

Ships sailed in fairly predictable routes because the winds were fairly predictable. It's much easier to pirate a ship if you have a pretty solid idea of where they are going to be. How will your space pirates know? Perhaps a constraint on where ships can jump?

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Classical piracy is nearly impossible in your setting. Even in a setting without FTL boarding and seizing the cargo is going to be unpleasant. As I see it you got three options as pirates.

Ransom, Infiltration and "Protection"

Ransom is as easy as getting something nasty on board of one of your spacecraft. Antimatter, nukes, combat robots, nanotech, several tonnes of semtex, xenomorphes. Alternatively messing with the crafts systems (explody jump drive software update) or crew (got a cute daughter there pal) is also a vector. Be creative. You tell the company about the threat and demand a reasonable price in exchange for the information on how to remove it. Alternatively you get a crewmember to drop off some cargo on deep space.

Infiltration is a long term project that might be difficult to pull of but, given the extreme payoffs, it is worth it. Place more and more sleeper agents on the vessel and wait for worthwhile cargo. Then you eat the rest of the crew or space them. Whatever tickles your fancy.

The protection angle has to bee combined with occasional attacks, where you run the ransom strategy with heavy weapons or simply conduct purely destructive attacks on the spacecraft. Then you approach shipping companies with an offer of protection in the dangerous territory. The money is regularly shared out among the captains and greedy morons get crucified on their ships nosecones. There is even the option of going legal here.

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Extortion

Remember, the particular goods are not the target, the wealth is.

Since getting close and at the right speed is rather improbable, change tactics.

Threaten to blow up the ships. If your pirates have developed a reputation or can offer proof that they can and will destroy the ship; the crew, or the ships owner (or insurance), will pay in a crypto currency.

Note: I gave a similar answer to a similar question. Would interstellar space piracy be possible under these conditions?

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  • $\begingroup$ Hoist the black and demand a cut, yeah, it certainly worked back in the day, if you can get close enough and have a reputation of taking the shot when necessary it could work, especially in crowded/cluttered locations. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Nov 6 at 7:46
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Addition: as you're writing fiction, you can flaunt physics and make up your own force via some presently-undiscovered, intergalactic wind, permitting old and new piracy tactics to come alive in three dimensions!

So does the situation after the Sunderer Crisis support the idea of space piracy?

Perhaps-

This would help explain both the reactionless drive and unpredictable transfer times (tides, varying "wind" speed, etc.)

  • The average travel speeds are roughly 4C but the specific travel time for any given trip is highly unpredictable.
  • There is a reactionless drive effect as a secondary function of the jumpdrive technology but that function can't be used near large masses, including but not limited to planets, moons, most asteroids, the drive cores of other ships and most of the larger space habitats.
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  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure, but why don't you merge your two answers into one? There's a nice and cozy edit button to do that. Also the question's about the viability of the space piracy. It's nice to give opportunities to make it more likely, but I think it'd be also interesting to know if you think they're necessary for Ash's piracy to work or if their conditions are sufficient. $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Oct 28 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ Specifically, I hope this Answer provides a reasonable, in-theme, explanation for the reactionless drive and its unpredictable transit times, which can be more explained and discussed in comments, while the other could be a comment without a home and may be deleted (though this should be a voting action).. or more simply, I believe this Answer is sufficiently different to warrant a discrete entry! $\endgroup$
    – ti7
    Oct 28 at 19:28
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    $\begingroup$ I re-read the question, and indeed my other Answer doesn't seem suitable, so I deleted it and added more to this one to make it more relevant! $\endgroup$
    – ti7
    Oct 28 at 20:47
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The pirates would disable their prey with long range weapons.

Long range weapons are great in space. You can see a long way and there are no crossbreezes to spoil your shot.

Matte black, stealthy<*> pirates would use railguns to hamstring their prey while still at distance. They would take out the engines and defensive weaponry. The ship could then be threatened at close range with more destructive weapons (e.g. a nuke) if it resisted.

In addition to cargo, the target ship's crew itself could be a prize to be ransomed (as modern pirates to) or pressed into service on pirate ships.

  • seriously stealthy!
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    $\begingroup$ In space stealth is not just dark paint. you'd need to totally control you EM emissions to avoid VIMS, and that is so much harder than one thinks. and even then, just like at sea, you'd leave wake behind you from all kinds of radiation bombarding you. $\endgroup$
    – AcePL
    Oct 29 at 6:18
  • $\begingroup$ @AcePL - in addition to the dark paint these pirates have stars painted on their ship. "Camouflage", you know. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Oct 29 at 12:33
  • $\begingroup$ You misunderstand. To have stealth to be truly invisible in space requires rather very advanced technology and tactics. If you're aware you're turning OP's requirements on it's head, then it's fine by me, but say so in the answer. $\endgroup$
    – AcePL
    Oct 29 at 12:44
  • $\begingroup$ @AcePL I think the term "stealthy" could cover it all. I will add that these pirates are masters of stealthy stealth. You can imagine the advanced technology and tactics to meet your high standards. Like space ninjas with black ships! But no poison because in space that would be silly. Ok, poison too. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Oct 29 at 21:42
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With the mechanics of your drive, I think your ships are going to be a bit different from what you think. I think they will use large cargo containers (at a mile long, they would be only 2% the length of the ship). They would arrive, establish a stable orbit, and disconnect/drop all the containers listed for this location. They would then maneuver to where the outgoing containers have been staged for pickup, connect them all, and depart. The first part might take a day, and the second might take a week. Every few dozen stop-overs, they might take a few days vacation.

So piracy? There really is no point going after the ships in "flight". (You don't know where they are except when they are maneuvering to drop or pickup.) You go after the freshly dropped cargo, or in some rare cases, the cargo being staged for shipment. It becomes a race: Can the pirate get in and steal something before the cargo handlers and guards can arrive and establish control.

I think there is one cargo you've forgotten: Colonists. I don't think this changes anything.

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  • $\begingroup$ There is no race on those terms, one the cargo is under continuous guidance from the docking station, two it has maneuvering thrusters fired by that guidance system and moves itself from ship to where it's needed, there's no other way to handle the volume. Thirdly on a slightly separate note most of the cargo is independently crewed, interplanetary ships, O'Neill Cylinder Modules, farming helostats and the like. Colonists in transit might be the only really vulnerable material on a Leviathan. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Nov 5 at 11:54
  • $\begingroup$ While I will admit that some cargo would be ships with guidance systems, drives, and crew, I don't believe they all would be. Additionally, I don't believe the mechanics allow the cargo to be easily delivered to a station. So I don't think you try -- you just put it in a stable orbit and let the locals pick it up. The "race" is if the official local recipients or the pirates/looters get there first. (I will admit, only bulk material transports are likely to be driveless and crewless, and these are not usually good targets.) $\endgroup$
    – David G.
    Nov 5 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ No crew or guidance systems on most of the cargo but drives on everything, those drives to be piloted by the retrieval crew at destination, that crew can be orders of magnitude larger than the what the ship can carry. The cargo will be under direct control from ship to secure parking zone. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Nov 6 at 7:37
  • $\begingroup$ Depends on an unmentioned bit of the mechanics: Cost to build a drive. Personally, I favor tugboats, particularly for things like bulk ore carriers (and possibly also for anything meant to be left in orbit). In any case, remote control drives opens up another type of piracy: remote control theft. And if it is local control, then there is a race again: who gets there first and controls the drive. $\endgroup$
    – David G.
    Nov 6 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ A cold gas thruster kit or small liquid rocket motor is relatively inexpensive, they're not going to need a lot of Delta-V. You'd have to get between the docking station and the cargo to remote pirate it and fake a signal ping delay, good luck getting out of that situation alive when the station sees part of the cargo heading in the wrong direction. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Nov 7 at 4:50
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At first, I was thinking a 50 mile long ship would be outrageously too large. Shipping of standard raw materials, such as what you would find on a periotic chart, would be unnecessary as these materials would be available in most systems already.

However, if these far flung systems produced or harvested exotic forms and kinds of matter, which may be doable. If one of these systems harvested pure neutrons from a neutron star to be transmuted to any element you want, such as super trans-uranic elements, you may need large quantities of liquefied neutron matter. Another, is either harvesting or constructing sub-stellar black holes. These things you do not want to create in Sol. If you ended up dropping one out of its construction containment, you do not want it bouncing around the Sol star system. So build these babies in some disposable star system of the frontier. To make Alcubierre drive like system, you will probably need black holes to power them.

Now, based on your limitations, you can’t just go from one of these harvesting site, up to 30 ly away from Sol, you can’t do it in one jump. You would need to make more than 6 jumps. More than likely, these jumps would jump to star systems along the way, to allow the jump drive to cool down or recharge. Can’t imagine subjecting this powerful drive to such huge stresses be good without giving it time to stabilize.

The drives that power these freighters are so powerful that their power interferes with other freighters. Other objects, such as planets, the star itself etc. will cause issues for these ships. They must enter these systems from a great distance, maybe 100’s of Au out and slow approach the pit stop areas for recharge. These cannot be too close to the jump point so it will take some time to transit in and out of star systems. These jump points will change over time, due to the orbit of planets and the movement of the stars, but is very predictable.

Economies would develop around some of these common pit stops these freighters travel through. In our part of the galaxy, there isn’t many star systems spaced out enough to select any number of systems to choose to jump to, maybe one or two along common routes. Limited and predictable routes are more likely to fall prey to nefarious people to try to take advantage of. Now, the biggest problem with the reality of this universe is time. To make a transit from one of these far flung colonies, 30 ly out, is 7.5 years one way, not counting porting time. Cant imagine you have a professional and skilled crew if they will be away from family and friends for 15+ years. So the “crews” will probably be much larger to account for the crews families. Due to socio-economic balance, the shipping company may make these large long haulers into cities. May forgo some automation to justify a couple thousand people on board as “crew.” They bring their own economies with them that need servicing and cash into pit stop stations.

This can make them more desirable as a soft target for pirates. A small pirate clan may not be able to deal with a 50 mile long ship, not to mention can do anything with liquefied neutron matter, but if they threaten the lives of the crews children, they may be more apt to cooperate or maybe holding the ship/crew hostage. Plus, these large crews can add to the number of desperate space sailors that may be more inclined to go on raids for quick cash.

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