As far as I am aware, the realities of warfare in space is (or will be) vastly different to our current imagining. Star Wars and Star Trek both have ships relatively close to each other, firing lasers and missiles (sometimes made of light), cloaking devices, epic explosions etc...

But this is what I have learned so far:

  • Most space battle will be taking place at extreme distances, ships being able to detect each other from great distances, and weaponry being effective at long range. (So no close up battles like in the battle of Endor).

  • Cloaking would be practically impossible, as hiding your heat signature from the vacuum of space would be impossible. (So no Klingon Warbirds suddenly appearing off the starboard bough).

  • Explosions would last milli-seconds and would dissipate almost instantly in space. (So no epic explosion waves).

  • Privately owned large combat vessels would be a rarity, as these things could easily be piloted into a planets surface, killing millions like an asteroid. (So no Han Solos or Millenium Falcons).

  • Space is mostly empty, so hiding in asteroid belts etc would not offer much cover, if any.

Given all of this, space battles sound like they would be brutal and fast, a spread out across vast distances, perhaps even light years apart.

So I have 2 questions:

  • Are there any other factors I might of missed out that would dramatically effect space combat.

  • (Most importantly) In a universe without hyper space jumps or similar, what technologies or environments would be necessary to make short range space battles (where boarding ships was a possibility for instance) not just possible, but practical?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ While space combat would be long distance, it would be considerably less than the "light years" range. Even tiny, irregular, course adjustments will mean your target is no longer where you thought it would be. Unless you have FTL drives or weapons, of course. The first will allow short range combat, the second will demand extreme ranges. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Sep 17 '15 at 17:23

Cloaking may be difficult or impossible (thermodynamically), but it is worth noting that the vastness of space allows you to hide in plain sight. It can be remarkably difficult to process enough sterradians of space to identify objects that don't belong. For instance, NASA does not know very much about Earth-orbit intersecting asteroids, because there's just too much space to cover.

You can still "uncloak" off the starbord bow... but instead of it looking like an impressive face-to-face naval battle, you might "uncloak" 1AU off the starboard bow, fire a weapon at long distances, and fade away before long range scanners identify where you were and start searching.

Phrased differently: surprise is about timing, not space. Space makes it harder to get the timing advantage you need, but advanced weapons are designed to give you a way to take out your opponent with smaller margins than before. It used to be "don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes," and you could ride a horse closer to an army because of it. Now, snipers can shoot from a mile away, and beyond that, guided munitions do a heck of a lot better than that!


From what I have learned about space and our current tech status, I could say this. Note that this information may be incomplete and sometimes misleading (an idea might be possible, but required so much expense, time or collaboration that it would be practically impossible).

Exotic Weapons

These include the futuristic weapons which we are capable or producing with our current technology.

1- Chemical Lasers can produce very high energy laser beams which can pass through steel like hot knife passes through butter. One touch of this baby would be a good-nighter. However since they depend on chemical reactions, so only a space-ship cannot go on shooting this over and over till infinity.

2- Electron Lasers are more economic and can be produced over and over and over again if you have a secure high energy electric line.

3- Antimatter Weapons are based on the idea that matter and antimatter cancel out each other's existence with a mind boggling amount of energy output (released in the form of electromagnetic waves). This would THE dream weapon for all space-ships as there is no possible defense against (using current technology). However, creating antimatter in sufficient amounts is extremely, extremely costly and complex. Storage is yet another issue.

Conventional Weapons

1- Guided Missiles. Heat seeking missiles were developed long ago, during Soviet-Afghan war. Now missiles can be laser targetted (very effective) and GPS targetted (useless for space battles). However, space missiles would have to carry their oxygen supply with them, which would limit their range.

2- Sniper Canons. Basically a scaled-up version of sniper rifles. Since space holds no gravity and no drag, bullets can be fired for infinite distances (unless there is a high gravity region in between). However, these could only be fired from a large space-ship as the recoil would easily put a lighter body in high-speed rotation.

Hiding, Cloaking And Other Possibilities

Hiding your space-ship from enemy depends on which technology they are using to scan the space. They could be using infra-red scanners to locate you thermally or they could be using highly sensitive magnetic field detectors which would detect your presence even if your engines were off. I don't know how radar works in space, so I cannot say anything about that.

With current tech, you cannot quickly take cover behind an asteroid belt because you might escape the enemy this way but you would almost certainly be pulverised by the asteroids. You would not hide in a large hornet's nest if you were being chased by a bear.

Also, asteroid belts are not a common commodity in space. They are far flung with vast spaces between them. It would probably take you more time reaching an asteroid belt, than it would take you to return to home planet, refuel, take off again and engage the enemy.

Boarding opponent's spaceships is a big no-no. Although you can use small rockets to hover around in space and reach the enemy's spaceship, these trips can be effectively used for placing explosive devices on the enemy ship and escaping. Unlike an ocean ship, a spaceship has no place where you can land, disembark from your rocket, roam around, eat pizzas, shoot down enemy troopers (they would never be getting out of their ship anyway) and feel like a space-pirate. No sir, not at least with the current tech.


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