So, humanity has invented an engine that while not capable of FTL travel, is still incredibly fast (IE cross the solar system in a matter of weeks or even days on certain ships). We make colonies and R&D facilities all the way out to Pluto. Trade and exploration have exploded in profitability, and mining asteroids have created the first trillionaires on Earth and its major colonies.

Now the only problem, how does one keep such a large area secure? Piracy would run rampant with how much spaceships have to cover. There aren't enough warships to cover the whole of the solar system. How do you prevent pirates from just raiding mining facilities and stealing from freighters and running away before any military ship can make it?

The force of pirates

Pirates basically have whatever ships they capture, with guns and missiles stuck on it. Their armor is poor, weapons are meh, rarely do they have an actual military ship, their engines are still just as fast. There are a lot of them, and because they have mostly civilian ships it can be hard to tell the difference between them and a civilian vessel at a distance.

force of the... civilized world

Heavy armor, insane weapons and missiles, not as fast, but if they catch a pirate, that pirate WILL be obliterated if they don't surrender. There isn't very many of them, so they've got a big job dealing with so many pirates spread out in such a large space... literally.

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    $\begingroup$ What level of realism are you looking for? Is this hard-sci or sci-fantasy or something in between? It will decide the answer to your question. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Mar 5, 2022 at 6:15
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    $\begingroup$ In the first half of the 1st century BCE, the new shiny Roman Empire had a massive problem with piracy on the Mediterranean Sea. In 68 BCE, the pirates even attacked and burned Ostia, Rome's main port, destroyed most of the fleet anchored there, and kidnapped two senators. In response, the Romans passed Lex Gabinia de piratis persequendis, which introduced an extraordinary command, an imperator with supreme proconsular power at sea and on land within 50 miles from the sea. In a very short time, piracy was an ex-problem. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 5, 2022 at 6:23
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    $\begingroup$ Tom - Its hard-sci. Ships still have to obey physics and the tech involved is something that is theoretically possible with our current level of physics. All the answers I've gotten have been very good, the choice is quite difficult here! $\endgroup$
    – Chuck
    Mar 6, 2022 at 7:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Chuc, If you really want stealth in space, it might be best to go with some handwavium heat sink(which would have consequences) or any other up-to-you or outgassing of some kind, with a fairly high heat capacity and a low Infared emission rate, nitrogen, for example, on a slightly harder note, $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2022 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ An important thing is how fuel efficient are the spaceships, or how much does the fuel cost. If you have to try and consider saving fuel, I would imagine there aren't actually that many routes between the planets. Also where do these pirates live/launch from? $\endgroup$
    – Aequitas
    Mar 7, 2022 at 0:20

9 Answers 9


Hire escorts.

These pirates with their crappy poorly armed but just as fast ships - they want to eat regularly. Stealing loads of ore is hard, dangerous work. Payday comes infrequently or not at all.

The people who run ore barges have money, because they are selling that ore. They hire a bunch of these crappy poorly armed ships to come along for the trip. These hired guns are not warships - not at all. They are private contractors with extremely variable skillsets. They would be pirates too except they are more risk averse and willing to show up on time to work in exchange for regular pay. Maybe some are old pirates.

When other pirates come, these escorts earn their combat pay. The actual robbers need to shoot their way through these escorts to get to the ore barge.

-- I here assert that this makes for a fiction that is more fun than Big Brother Moon Laser obliterating any player with a piratical thought.


Here's the most important thing to remember: there ain't no stealth in space*

Travelling promptly across interplanetary distances requires powerful engines. Even if you have magical reactionless drives that produce no exhaust you've still got to provide them with energy somehow (unless you've invented a free-energy machine, but you'll have bigger problems then) and whatever is providing that energy is going to generate heat. Lots of heat.

This means that you can see most spacecraft coming from millions of kilometres away. Any organisation with a vested interest in dealing with space pirates will have a network of very capable infrared observatories that continuously scan space around them, and correlate what they see with traffic control information and officially filed flight plans.

If this capability is good enough, it could conceivably spot spacecraft which haven't filed a flight plan within days or hours of their launch, and ships that deviate from their filed plans could be spotted and tracked in real time. This facility also provides the benefit that ships in difficulty can be identified as fast as possible and rescue ships launched if necessary.

Unregistered ships, ships without flight plans and ships deviating from plans will then go on to receive the good old Loudness, Lawyers and Lasers, probably in that order, if they fail to explain themselves adequately and promptly. Even where real-time and rapid tracking capabilities are lacking, that continuous record of IR observations will eventually be processed and cross-referenced and anomalous heat signatures associated with pirate activity can be tracked to their point of origin. Pirate bases can't hide for long, and normal ports found to be harboring pirate activity are likely to face sanctions or even violence.

It is also worth remembering that high-energy space infrastructure is astonishingly dangerous. With relative speeds of hundreds or thousands of kilometres per second, pirate ships are not safe from civilian equipment. Remember the Kzinti lesson! Empty tugs and repurposed beam-propulsion systems make for quite effective kinetic weapons. Space is dangerous and spacecraft are fragile enough already. The potential piracy victims don't have to put up much of a fight to tip the pirate's risk/reward tradeoffs towards some other profession.

*well, you can have it sometimes, kinda, but it is very limited

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    $\begingroup$ +1 - totally agree. I'd say that piracy would then be a matter of corruption from, for example, space port officers, crew or passengers. $\endgroup$
    – Stivsko
    Mar 5, 2022 at 21:35
  • $\begingroup$ In real life space craft (Probes, etc) usually only fire their engines for short periods of time and then coast on their momentum and only fire up their engines again if they need to change course or to slow down. This heat generally dissipates very quickly. So, a pirate ship might have a visible heat plum for a few seconds when it accelerates, slows or course corrects. It's perfectly plausible for a ship to be almost completely dark thermally for most of its voyage from A to B. See Anime Starship Operators for examples of how this is used in combat. $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2022 at 15:32
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    $\begingroup$ @AaarghZombies in order to travel as far as the OP wants, in the timescales they want, the amount of energy required is going to be enormous. That energy can be released quickly or slowly, but it still has to be released and it can't be done so in a subtle way. A boost-coast-brake flight path is also limited by the squishiness of the payload, eg. meatbags. Can't accelerate too fast without it being hamburger time. Fast acceleration = higher power = higher early heat output, too. $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2022 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ Never-ending the drive, the ship is hot because it is keeping its passengers alive. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Mar 6, 2022 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ "normal ports found to be harboring pirate activity are likely to face sanctions or even violence" That doesn't happen here on earth a lot of the time, sometimes due to corruption, just give the local officials their cut, or a larger authority not wanting to risk a diplomatic incident or incur civilian casualties. $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2022 at 23:01

No Pirate is an Island

Pirates never have and never will exist in isolation. Doesn't matter if it was viking raiders, 17th European pirates or 21st century Solmali pirates. They exist as part of a system. There is always a market because piracy is a business. You have the victims, the pirates and the buyers/sellers. Pirates have to have a way to sell the ships, cargoes or people they capture. The buyers and sellers can be one in the same or separate but either way in exchange for their seizures the pirates are paid either in cash or in part with supplies, parts and fuel etc. But importantly even if this happens in deep space pirates also need a place to rest and replenish.

When you examine the way piracy was taken care of by European nations in the 17th and 18th centuries the key element was attacking this system, most importantly the ports where pirates would go for safe refuge. Aggressive naval patrolling did a lot but without a place to hide & replenish piracy becomes uneconomic.

So in this case since it is hard to hide in space (no stealth or at least very little) long term analysis and intelligence gathering will tell you where the pirates go to sell their stolen goods. You can then attack and take those bases. Meeting in deep space to exchange cargoes with a purchaser can let you avoid going 'home' for a while but eventually the ship has to dock somewhere.

Tracking down stolen goods back to the fence who bought it will also make life difficult/dangerous for the pirates. If being caught with the proceeds of piracy is regarded as being just as serious a crime and the piracy itself it will become a lot harder to find buyers. It will also become far less profitable for the pirates because the buyers will be charging huge risk premiums.

  • $\begingroup$ I came here to say exactly that. Yeah, the guns-blazing space fight approach looks a lot cooler, but this here is the realistic approach. Combined with the other answer: "there is no stealth in space" any secret pirate port would be uncovereg (and glassed) quickly. After the second or third harbor destroyed it just wouldn't be worth it anymore $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 7, 2022 at 11:23

Widespread surveillance networks

The hijacked cargoes are anything but anonymous. To start off with, they come from specific astronomical sources whose isotopic compositions are known, and likely vary from Earth. Trace contaminants also provide a clue. But mostly -- remember the spy tech.

Since 9/11, much (often it seems like most) research has been directed toward coming up with new ways to spy on people. RFID tags, quantum dots, "smart dust", chemical taggants, object recognition and identification from surveillance cameras and so on. Printer ink literally costs more than its weight in gold, and you can bet if you print anything subversive it will be tracked down. Given some time, you can imagine these vulnerable cargoes will be better protected than the razor aisle at a supermarket. The pirates will have goods that are 100% identifiable, and in all odds they themselves have been photographed inside and out, with terahertz beamforming vastly more precise than anything a Huawei smartphone can do.

In short, the pirates are limited to raiding for subsistence, perhaps to maintain their own hopeless rebellion a little longer, rather than selling goods and winning in the larger economy.


Radioactive tagging means you're outed as a thief the moment you try and sell your loot.

All interplanetary cargo is tagged with an isotope so it can be tracked from planet to planet. This way they can track cargo tainted with Europa-flu, and any stolen goods.

"Radio-readers" are ubiquitous at retail markets across the solar system. It's been enshrined into law that any transaction should be verified by radio-readers.

Even if pirates make off with the cargo, it's been tagged with the victim's ship ID. The moment they try to fence it back into the legal economy, it'll be caught.

Modern piracy = kidnapping

Modern-day Samolioa is a pirate haven because their government collapsed. The pirates didn't loot the cargo ships, but instead held them hostage and demanded ransoms because it's much easier to carry money than goods. Modern pirates don't want your stuff - they want money!

The space pirates have to drive the ship to their outlaw planet - throwing off exaust, radiation, and distress signals (at least until they figure out how to disable that part).

The solar system isn't that big. As this quiz from NASA shows, it would take about 11 hours for a radio wave to traverse from the sun to the edge of the solar system. Even with only modern-day tech - that means a distress signal would be picked up in hours.

It would take a minute to find the first few hijacked ships, but soon they'd zero in on the "Wild West Moon" the government would either nuke everyone from orbit or blockade it and prevent any ships from coming or going until things are sorterd.


Space Piracy is too expensive

Piracy, like many things, is market driven. Can't be a pirate if there's no place to move the booty, and I doubt that planet faring ships are going to be carrying doubloons to finance their operations.

That means that the cargo, and/or the ship, has to have value.

Next, the value of those items has to be more than the risk to get it.

Modern pirates are bands of, essentially, desperate men with light weapons in small boats seizing large ships with huge cargos. It's also in an environment where the targets simply don't fight back. (Why? Because it's too expensive to fight back.) So, it becomes an insurance game for the merchants. Million dollar ransoms for billion dollar ships and cargos.

Now turn this in to the space faring group.

You have millions of dollars worth of ships with millions of dollars worth of weapons doing millions of dollars worth of damage. If a trader with a laser can do millions of dollars worth of damage to a pirate, that pirate better have deep pockets to make it worth their while.

If pirates have carte blance, if simply the threat of doing millions of dollars of damage to a merchant is enough to make them heave to, and lose their cargo, even with no physical harm to the ship or the crew, the merchant is going to have to consider this in their "cost of doing business". If it's low grade friction (happens once a year, insurance covers the losses, more a paperwork problem than a safety problem), then low grade piracy will be "tolerated". Oh, they'll be hunt down, but it's not enough of a problem to stop the merchants.

If the merchants stop because of piracy, then everything changes. Now the authorities need to come in and clean things up. The State can afford the millions of dollars in damage to their ships. They can outgun the pirates, fly in squadrons, etc. The State is willing to spend more to stop piracy than the pirate can earn, because in the long game, the State wins by promoting safe trade.

Also, in the end, the State can beef up patrols, do convoys, etc. Again, the key is that combat is expensive. It's either very expensive in terms of dollar cost for repairs and replacement, or simply the lethality of space combat. (Space combat will be VERY lethal. Riflemen in a bull ring lethal.)

This ends up moving piracy to the docks, the bureaucrats, corruption, graft, etc. Not in space itself.


Not if society refuses to

Sure, the basic physics will make piratical activities straightforward to detect. But none of that amounts to a hill of space beans if the people won't apply it for that purpose. I think your people won't, because they live in a harsh, dog-eat-dog world.

What makes me think that? A few clues:

  • trillionaires on Earth and its major colonies

One thing all astronomically wealthy private entities have in common: they seek to weaken all other institutions (particularly government) so there can be no impediment to their future profits, and so the powerful people at the top are not bound by any law. Some illustrative examples:

  • In Mass Effect, Noveria is a research lab on a privately-owned planet where they do illegal research.
  • In Chinatown, the wealthy villain has a city employee killed in order to conceal a large criminal scheme, and he does this with the help of several members of the local police who then help him derail the murder investigation.
  • In Reacher, a criminal uses his largess to preemptively buy the loyalties of practically an entire town, and then wields its residents as weapons to impede investigations into his criminal operation by the federal government, local police, and the protagonist.
  • In the real world, Jeffrey Epstein created his own private "sex island" (plus a "branch office" in NYC) where powerful men could have sex with underage girls.

In all these cases, fictional and real, the rich people at the top refused to take "it's against the law" for an answer. They refused to take "it's morally repugnant" for an answer. They refused to take "human lives are more important than a seventh luxury yacht" for an answer. Instead, they found or created spaces where the law is weak, and some actively subverted the government entities responsible for enforcing the law.

In a universe where private individuals have power over fortunes in the trillions, especially when there are multiple such individuals, it's absurd to imagine the political situation will resemble anything like our real, present world. Each of these trillionaires will be their own nation-state. Each will be the absolute ruler over multiple colonies, and will enjoy equivalent status on every colony and at every facility owned or controlled by their companies.

The mere existence of trillionaires is proof that the government(s) in your universe have failed to maintain a monopoly on power, and have lost the fight to private wealth. In all likelihood, those governments are kept on life-support for the express purpose of handling the day-to-day work of managing the "human trash": the majority of the population that these trillionaires have no use for.

  • civilized world... there isn't very many of [civilized warships]

So who owns these well-equipped warships? Probably not your anemic governments, who are certainly operating at a financial loss, crippled by brain-drain and unconstrainted tax evasion. The only duties they are actually equipped to perform competently are:

  • to enforce the property rights of the wealthy;
  • to keep violent crime away from the wealthy; and
  • to rubber-stamp whatever legal fictions the rich invent to justify fleecing the mass of humanity.

They certainly are not fielding fleets of well-equipped warships. Hell, they probably have to apply for permission from some kind of trillionaire-created Space Traffic Oversight Board each time they want enter space, because the wealthy will have carved it up amongst themselves (like Bezos & Musk are preparing to do today).

Whence piracy?

Your pirates will typically come from a few sources:

  • Mercenaries. Hired by the wealthy to prey upon their competitors (including coup attempts by junior execs). They were called "privateers" during the Age of Sail, and they were licensed and paid by the aristocracy.

  • Mutineers. The hardware will come from the rich, but the rich won't risk their lives, so crews will be recruited from the working poor in exchange for a quality of life better than mere subsistence. Thus, some crew members' sympathies will still lie with their forebears, i.e. not their trillionaire overlords. Some mutinies will succeed, and then the vessel will no alternative but to resort to piracy.

  • Rebels. Occasionally, the poor will scrape together enough equipment to field a viable pirate vessel. They'll target facilities owned by the rich, but also any criminal gangs that prey upon the rebels' home neighborhoods. They'll also attack privately-owned colonies where the upper-middle-class live, where the wealthy grow their mates and middle managers.

Each kind of pirate will find welcome ports in predictable places:

  • privateers will be welcome at every colony controlled or allied with the trillionaire who licenses them
  • mutineers will be welcome at colonies that are aligned against the mutineers' former employer, and possible at Old Earth
  • rebels will be welcome at Old Earth and every colony whose purpose is resource extraction (i.e. the poor colonies: mining and the like)

So I wouldn't expect the kind of cross-colony coordination that would be necessary to establish a system-wide monitoring network. At least, not one that actually works: each component in the system will turn a blind eye to some types of pirates. Categorically, it is corruption. More accurately, it's class warfare writ large.

The society of your futuristic world is necessarily dysfunctional. That dysfunction will be an insurmountable impediment to anyone who wants to truly put an end to piracy.

Where there is a sea, there are pirates. -- Ancient Greek proverb



You build armed freighters--from the outside they look like an ordinary freighter and they function as one, albeit with a lower capacity than a normal freighter. That extra volume is weapons and some survival armor (protecting the crew, not the whole ship.) They behave just like an ordinary freighter until the pirate gets close enough to be quickly destroyed.

These aren't true warships, they're built to deliver one very hard hit at close range and to the extent practical fend off what little retaliation the pirate can get off before it's destroyed. They do not have the redundancy and beefing up that a warship would have.

They don't have to score very often to make piracy a very dangerous occupation. Pirates only exist in areas where losses are low enough that it's not worth the cost of an effective hunt.


If you're looking for a reason why pirate aren't simply raiding settlements constantly, rather than a store device to explain how they are kept at bay, then it could be that most larger outposts simple have some kind of shielding. It wouldn't need to be a Star Trek like deflector shield that creates a physical barrier that deflects anything thrown at it, it could be something much more limited, like some kind of magnetic field that could prevent pirate ships from docking by pushing against their hulls and thus buffering them away. Meaning that pirates would have to be much more creative. Such as using smaller ships, or disguising themselves as civilians, or sending people over in suits which would be much riskier.

The shield could be a modified device originally designed to deflect space debris, or maybe it's a tractor beam designed to aid docking, but put in reverse. Which could make it imperfect or not totally reliable, giving you a reason why it might not provide a perfect defense.


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