I'm considering a story set about fifty years (2065) in the future. It takes a rather optimistic view; space exploration has led to colonies on the Moon and Mars, as well as several space stations orbiting Venus for scientific purposes. There are currently several exploratory missions planned or in progress for the Jovian and Saturnian moons.

The main form of travel is still chemical rockets, regrettably, although ion engines have recently become fashionable since larger quantities of thrust were achieved in 2058. We can get from Earth to the Moon in two days and Venus or Mars in three months (suspend your disbelief). The majority of travel takes place using the following method:

  • Small single-stage-to-orbit reusable shuttles are taken from the planet/moon to a space station complex in orbit
  • Larger ships propelled by boosters then go to space stations at the next destination, where more shuttles take the crew and/or cargo to the surface.

Piracy is now back in style, despite many attempts to stop it using shielding and even onboard weapons on the interplanetary ships. My story in particular focuses on one particular group of pirates focusing on the Earth-Mars run.

However, I need to know if this is at all practical. Piracy in space is harder than piracy on the seas because orbital trajectories are, I'm guessing, much harder to change, and fuel is limited in the smaller, compact ships pirates typically use. This one uses an experimental ion engine, with enough energy to get from Earth to Mars and back.

From an orbital perspective, and taking the limited fuel reserves into account, is piracy in space feasible? If it is, where in the trade routes is the easiest attacking point - closer to the planets, where the pirates still have plenty of fuel, or out in the middle of space, where there are no other ships to stop them?

Kys pointed out in a comment that it might be better to switch propulsion systems - that is, have the pirate crafts use chemical rockets to make sharper maneuvers possible, while the large freighters use ion engines that they use to slowly accelerate. I'll probably go with that in my final story, but I don't want to change the premise; that would invalidate at least one answer given already. Any future answers should still assume that the large ships use chemical rockets.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ I think the primary difference with boats here, is that in spaceships smaller vessels aren't going to be faster than larger ones, is this the case here too? A second thought is that in deep space there's not likely to be any active thrust action, just waiting until the momentum takes you to your destination with minor corrections from thrusters. This makes an ambush relatively easy if you know the flight path. $\endgroup$
    – Feyre
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 18:58
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't these pirates be very easily identified and captured planet side? $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 19:02
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ The main advantage of ion engines is their constant (but slow) acceleration. They would not be ideal for a quick getaway. Instead, why not the cargo ships use ion engines for predictable flightpaths and have the pirates use chemical rockets for maneuvers and escapes. $\endgroup$
    – Kys
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 21:07
  • 15
    $\begingroup$ It seems to me that ship-to-ship piracy wouldn't be worth the effort given the constraints (need an expense ship, expensive fuel, no stealth... contested boarding, possible combat in deep space), and that the smart way to steal a ship or its cargo would be to actually be on the ship. Stowaway or otherwise be on the cargoship when it launches, and the hard part is done for you. A lot like air travel in that regard. No one hijacks or steals from an airplane by intercepting it with their fighter jet, because it's too expensive and dangerous. More effective to take it from the inside. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 23:30
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ I don't think this is enough for an answer so I'll post as a comment: Since orbital mechanics is part of your story, consider how that affects which transports to raid. Distance to mars will of course vary depending on where the planets are in orbit. That means that only extremely valuable goods will be shipped when the constellations are wrong. Pirates will not strike when earth and mars are close but when they are far apart, the spoils are high and the law far away. $\endgroup$
    – Guran
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 7:16

17 Answers 17


Just because you can see pirates coming, doesn't mean you can stop them

I'm going to make some assumptions about how your spaceships work. The average distance from Earth to Mars is 225 million km, and travel time is 3 months. Average speed is 29 km/s. Geostationary orbit has orbital velocity of 3 km/s, so you need a 1g burn for about 45 minutes to gain 26 km/s of velocity. You'd be looking at a similar burn for deceleration, so almost all the 3 month travel time is just coasting.

If you are a pirate, and you can blend in with other merchant traffic, you could do a 1 hour burn a day or two later and overtake your victim mid-transit.

At this point, there are a series of questions to determine if this sort of piracy is economical. I call it a choose-if-piracy-is-right-for-you adventure.

  1. Is there an agency keeping a clear enough space picture to determine when one merchant has plotted a suspicious overtaking course? If yes, go to 2, if no, go to 4.
  2. Can the merchant ship effectively defend itself to the point that it can potentially cripple the propulsion system of attackers? If yes, piracy is not possible; if no, go to 3.
  3. Is there a naval vessel that is willing to do a 75 minute burn after the suspected pirates? If yes, piracy is not possible, if no, go to 4.
  4. If piracy occurred, is there a place to fence the goods (see the asteroid belt in every space opera ever), even if it is known that piracy occurred? If yes, then piracy is possible, if no then go to 5.
  5. Are the vessels manned and will insurance cover the cost of a ransom? If yes, then piracy is possible, if no, then piracy is not possible.

The moral of the story is: piracy could certainly be detected, and would be detected. After all, it is basically always detected on modern earth. But for ships in the Bab el-Mandeb, even if they can see the pirates coming an hour away it that doesn't mean they don't get pirated. Unless they can shoot back, or the Navy is also an hour away, they are toast. Same thing on month-long time spans in space. If you can see the pirates will overtake you in 3 days, but no one can come to help in 3 days, you can still get pirated. All the pirates need is somewhere to off-load the booty.

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Or Pirates take the ship Hostage for Ransom, then they need not worry about a place to Offload the Booty, just where to hide, which they would have had anyway. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 21:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The proper term in space flight is coasting, not floating. Coasting is what you do in between maneuvers under power (such as orbital injection burns and mid-course corrections). $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 22:46
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The navy ship does not have to give chace. Goverment could have huge energy beams that can be directed to a pirate as well as a derilect; or police ships can dispatch tiny nimble torpedos. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 6:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @kingledion “rinky-dink dinghy” as a better ring to it. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 6:29
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ As for being cost effective, it is the cost of what would be stolen (or lives lost) that matter, not the price of the boat being destroyed. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 6:31

Building on Hariz Rizki's answer, your actual space pirate isn't going to be a swarthy, one legged man in a spacesuit with a parrot on his shoulder, but rather a well dressed functionary at the Deimos space dock waiting for you with a clipboard in hand.

enter image description here

No one will suspect

enter image description here

Quick, find the space pirate

Building spacecraft is difficult and expensive, launching and manoeuvring a ship in space is going to be noticed by everyone (no stealth in space) and you will have a very limited number of places where you could go to offload cargoes and sell them for profit. Indeed, since your ship will be highly visible and tracked from beginning to end of its flight, the most likely outcome is the pirates come into the dock to be met by a heavily armed task force of police, coastguard and customs agents.....

Stealing or diverting cargoes from the dock provides a lot of advantages to the would be pirate. You have already done the very hard work of launching the cargo from the planet and transporting it to the pirate's lair. Since the pirates are already at the dock, they have had ample time to examine the security system, find buyers, bribe the appropriate people, hire some muscle in case people don't stay bribed and so on.

An even more ambitious and clever space pirate might even be getting the hapless ship's captain to load stolen cargo on board at Mars for the return flight to Earth, where his equally unscrupulous counterpart is waiting at the space dock.

  • 25
    $\begingroup$ The even cleverer space pirate gives up piracy altogether and forms a cartel. $\endgroup$
    – Kys
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 21:22
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ Technically the person you first posted engages primarily in insurance fraud. Her crew stages pre-planned "raids" on cruise vessels, taking insured jewelry and the like from the patrons... and they're paid off by the cruise companies to do so. $\endgroup$
    – JAB
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 22:37
  • 18
    $\begingroup$ @WilliamTFroggard Blackbody radiation is not buying what you are selling. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 5:26
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ @WilliamTFroggard Metamaterials may prevent incident EM radiation from reflecting off of you, thus preventing an active search radar from finding you, or preventing you from being illuminated by the sun. However, any object at any temperature emits EM blackbody radiation. If a spaceship is reasonably warm, like say room temperature for the inhabitants, then you will emit significant IR radiation that is detectable across the solar system. Anyone looking for a spaceship would be able to find it by the IR radiation it emits. No material can avoid emitting such radiation. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 5:50
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ @Physicist137 'Then, nothing can heat it up' Just wrong. If your spaceship is just you in a box, then you produce about 100W. If we assume the box has a heat capacity of 4187 kJ/K (same as for 1000 kg of water), then you will heat up the box by 4187000 J/K / (100 W * 3600s) = 11.6 hours per K. A couple days in that box and you will cook yourself. There is no convective heat transfer in space, you NEED blackbody radiation. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 14:13

Lots of people here, including the OP, are worrying over the capabilities and tactics of space pirates, but the question fundamentally deals not with those particulars, but rather the economical and political situations which lead to endemic piracy.

Piracy in space is harder than piracy on the seas because orbital trajectories are, I'm guessing, much harder to change, and fuel is limited in the smaller, compact ships pirates typically use

Set trajectories makes the job of a pirate a simple matter of obtaining shipping timetables or, failing that, waiting patiently along vital routes. See Train Robbery.

From an orbital perspective, and taking the limited fuel reserves into account, is piracy in space feasible?

If official ships can get there, so can pirates. What do you think these guys do, legally build or buy their ships? Hardly. Historically, they usually:

  1. Mutinied aboard legal vessels, marooned or kill the loyal crew, and turned pirate.

  2. Purchased a legal vessel and refitted it with legal antipiracy weapons, posing as legal businessmen.

  3. Obtained letters of marque from governments, commissioned privateering vessels with the assent and even support of a navy, and then promptly ignored papers and flags on the high seas.

None of this matters as much as the economic and political climate in which all this spacefaring is occurring. For piracy to exist, we must have

  • long-distance goods transport
  • an unpoliced route
  • a fence for stolen goods, usually in the form of a corrupt polity of some kind
  • enough economically-distressed and transport-skilled population to man said transportation
  • profit commensurate to the act

If any one of these, with the possible exception of policed routes, fails to obtain, then piracy will not arise or continue. The policing of routes is a matter of degrees, and as work in the Indian Ocean against Somali pirates has shown, armed guards and national navies don't necessarily solve the problem alone; steps were instead taken to eliminate the fence and long-distance goods transport in the area, which was probably just as, if not more, effective in clearing up the area.

Air piracy did not obtain the same heights as aquatic piracy because the population capable of crewing aircraft was more tightly regulated and better paid than the population tasked with crewing sailing ships. This would also be the primary problem with space piracy, so your story needs to come up with an explanation for a rather sizeable population of destitute astronauts:

  • robots/corporations/nations/aliens took our jobs
  • fuel costs have risen drastically, so shipping jobs are down (but a few very profitable targets still ship - like shipments of that newly expensive fuel!)
  • large numbers of military crew are destitute after their nation's defeat in a space war
  • an economically-disadvantaged nation at war begins issuing letters of marque to enterprising mercenary pilots


Those guys need transports to pirate and a relatively unpoliced area to operate in. Those are obvious - spaceships are the transports, and space is the relatively unpoliced area.

Those pirates also need a profit incentive, so we can't be shipping paper here - a high value to mass cargo would be ideal. Unrefined products are not as appealing as ransoms of the ship or its passengers, or things like heavy machinery, rare crystals, etc.

Finally, these guys need a fence. This is a company, nation, alien race, marketplace, or other means of taking very obviously ill-gotten goods and turning them into an ostensibly legal profit for the pirates so they can enjoy the good life back home. Either that or, as in the caribbean, you need the life itself to be "the fence" - many of those pirates were going to die if they ever returned home, so living on the high seas off the things you take from other ships seemed like a relatively good deal - these are the odd pirates that aren't stealing your gold bullion or slaves - they're chasing down your rum shipments, bulk corn haulers, and gun transports, just scavenging to keep themselves going a while longer. In that case piracy itself is the fence for a desperate profit - life itself.

I focus on the economics and politics of piracy because honestly, human criminal ingenuity will overcome most all obstacles placed in its path if the payout is high enough.

TL;DR all you need is for the conditions to be right, and you WILL have piracy, no matter how hard the act itself is.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I would have answered myself, but this answer covers it all: the conditions for piracy need to be right. Law-free space, and you need a fence you can sell your goods to and buy goods from. Ion drives use rare gases, that you need to buy in a purified form. You need food, medical supplies, tools etc... you need someone who is willing to trade with you. And you need to make a huge profit, because space travel is expensive. If starting a rocket and flying to mars costs us 50 million dollar, what is the ship transporting that makes this worth it? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 9:15
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "Set trajectories makes the job of a pirate a simple matter of obtaining shipping timetables or, failing that, waiting patiently along vital routes. See Train Robbery." I have to take issue with this- with the engine technologies the OP mentioned, an interplanetary transfer requires somewhere between a significant fraction to a majority of a reasonable ship's delta-V. A train robbery is somewhat harder to pull off when the train is going several kilometers per second, you have to match course with it to do anything, and you are physically unable to stay still due to orbital mechanics. $\endgroup$
    – Catgut
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 20:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Catgut, I fee l it is unwise to place assumed restrictions on the capabilities of desperate people with very large carrots dangling in front of them. Sure, it may be hard, but then perhaps there's another way you didn't think about - like putting an asteroid in their path and forcing them to waste large amounts of energy diverting around and that, or lassoing them and safely decelerating their prize with a sufficiently large rotational deceleration. The point of my whole post is that if the conditions are right, the crime will occur. There is nothing inherently improbable or impossible here. $\endgroup$
    – Adam Wykes
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 22:27
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Air piracy seems to be lacking because intercepting a passenger jet in flight and transferring goods without killing everyone on both vessels is virtually impossible. Note KAL Flight 007 and Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114, where passenger jets were shot down instead of any attempt made to board them. It's possible, but not required, that spaceships could be similarly difficult to board in flight. $\endgroup$
    – prosfilaes
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 20:51
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The many other answers here already address the inconsequential mechanics and tactics of space piracy, so people criticizing my thread among all the others are missing their targets. My fundamental argument is that the mechanics and tactics simply aren't the real problem to solve; they're incidental to the fact that you need the right environment for there to be any chance of piracy at all. $\endgroup$
    – Adam Wykes
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 21:02

I says it can be possible albeit in non-full-thrill-action way. Why you hijack a space ship conventionally like a traditional pirate hijacks a boat when you can hack them through with your keyboard?

A space pirate wouldn't be like their traditional counterparts because to be one you need the skill sets to self/small groups piloting an interplanetary ship undetected, while normal ways (nowadays) require a group of people counting the complex equation and trajectory to just send a rocket (NASA and other space exploration organizations).

A group of bright people like that would logically first try to breach the communications systems of ships to alter their routes (also disabling manual control) to their desired target (their 'garage') and then in their safe location they can dismantle the ship, kill or taking hostages, and take the valuables without putting their lives in space danger.

  • $\begingroup$ This is interesting. Do you know anything about security surrounding communications during space travel today? If there is any, that might be a place I could draw some inspiration from for this. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 19:50
  • $\begingroup$ qrg.northwestern.edu/projects/vss/docs/Navigation/… I found this link and the rest of that site to be a nice reading regarding this matter. Basically guided spaceship communicate with radio wave, and further the spaceship goes the longer it takes to send/receive the signal,so hypothetically a hiding pirate space station with nearer location can intercept and change the signal that guides the spaceship. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 20:09
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 Compare What would one need to do in order to hijack a satellite? on Information Security. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 22:48

Counteracting piracy, ship vs ship piracy

Let say, nowadays it became possible to hijack a plane using a fighter jet.
(one person from fighter jet moves from the jet to a plane, and forces all them to obey commands)

Now there is a question, what happens with that fighter jet. If those pirates have unlimited supply of those jets and crew for it - then no problem, proceed. But if they don't, how fast missiles will end that piracy, it just depends on how much of those jets the pirate have, because missiles will be not a problem.

The main problem is not how much it costs to change the orbit, but how to get away at all.

Spitzer Space Telescope took a picture of 2011 MD in infrared at the distance of 0.14 a.u. More about that here, but in short it is a 6 meter in diameter body, which emits about 38kW(my estimation, solar radiation) of heat near earth orbit(it was close passing-by asteroid).

0.14 a.u., 38kW heat source, half broken space telescope(coolant ended in 2009)

If the ship, which has been attacked will manage to send a stress code, there is no chances for pirate ship to hide. You have to have one telescope per one pirate act for time until pirate ship will be hit by a missile.
An example if there are 10 piracy acts per year it is enough to have one telescope, if there are 10 per day, then probably 300 will be enough.

Telescope weight 11 tonnes, so about 3000 tonnes in space is enough to guide your justice across the solar system, if it is worth of doing.

Changing orbit cost, profitability

Another point is selling the items. If rockets as we know them still in use - the item which is shipped have to cost a lot in place where it is transported to. I doubt it will cost the same in place where it is from.

SpaceX ITS projection is 140'000$ per tonne for shipment from earth to mars. It is a lot actually, probably makes sense for not everyday items, it is hard to sell them. Specially pirate should spend another 140'000 for propellant to return that cargo back, and up to that sum of money to redirect the cargo, which probably have serial numbers on most of its parts.

But what is more profitable, is to send a missile/mine which intercepts the target ship and sticks to the hull. After that they may have a few month to negotiate the price for release (somali piracy in space).

Deploying those mines-missiles is done long before actual thing will happen, by dumping cases aboard from usual ships(contraband). And one of the goals for piracy to have good enough network of such devices, so that they will have one of such at proper time in proper place.

Second goal is to hide those things, because a countermeasure again is the detection, space telescope. And there begins a game of cat and mouse - who is better mouse or the cat(telescope). If there are gaps in the system, and pirates know them (position/orbits of detectors, which and were at which time looks) there are options to hide mines in case if coverage is not full all the time.

Problem is that the telescope is pretty small, just 11 tonnes, I guess it is possible to fit to any ship. But depends. To negotiate release price pirates even do not have move a thing, just by saying we can do it, do you wish to check that.

  • $\begingroup$ Your telescopes will have no problems tracking a pirate ship until they pass behind Jupiter, change course, and land on a Jovian moon also behind Jupiter. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 15:34
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MarkRipley true. I will inform minister of space defense about your concerns and will order to place 10-50 of such around of Jupiter, if it isn't done already, and I guess also around each planet in solar system, if it isn't done. Thanks for your concerns about making our space safe to fly and horrible for piracy. Reading this answer would be a stretch to call "enjoy to read" - but there are some elements of how fully function system may work. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 19:34
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @MarkRipley any world that has merchant space traffic has also satellites orbiting Jupiter, and has had them long before reasonably frequent merchant traffic started. Compared to actual cargo traffic itself, detection gear is comparably simple, cheap and would be ubiquitous. $\endgroup$
    – Peteris
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 19:47

My answer is either a counterpart or counterpoint to @Thucydides's answer.

The key to space piracy is the docking and other stable facilities in space.

  • Option #1 - Attack ships when they arrive at, or leave, the docks.

    What's the point of chasing ships through 3D space, when they all start and/or end up exactly in one of a few fixed locations anyway? And are moving slowly when close enough to the facility - slowing down for docking or speeding up from a dead stop when leaving.

    IRL Example: Playing Sid Meyer's Colonization. That's realistic, right?

  • Option #2 - Directly attack the docks/ports

    If you find a dock/port facility that isn't heavily defended, you can simply outright raid it using good offensive weaponry.

    IRL Example: Captain Morgan attacked and sacked Portobello

  • Option #3 - Blackmail 1: a threat of attack on facility itself

    Even if your aren't strong enough to sack it, the cost of paying you off is very likely FAR cheaper than the cost of damage due to your attack (materials destroyed, people killed, opportunity costs of recovering from the attack, scaring off future personnel from working or living there).

    IRL Example: Captain Morgan, after he attacked and sacked Portobello, ransomed the town from the Portugese on threat of burning it down.

  • Option #4 - Blackmail 2: a threat of attack on ships arriving at the facility.

    You park near enough to the port/dock that you can attack any ships arriving there. You don't need to capture them, just cause damage and destruction - the port might pay you off to stop any future attacks.

    IRL example: Blackbeard blockaded Charleston.

  • Option #5 - Infiltrate personnel and attack from within.

    You don't need space combat. All you need is enough fighters to overwhelm local security (aided by surprise).

    IRL example: In 1718, Captain Davis sacked Gambia Castle, an English fort on the coast of Africa using just this tactics. Or Force 10 from Navaron.

  • Option #6 - Pretend to be a merchie, and join a convoy from a port.

    This allows you to recon and track the other ships in the convoy and select which to attack while travelling in the same convoy (and, if piracy is a big threat, they WILL likely band into convoys).

    IRL example: Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts did that with the annual Portuguese treasure fleet.

NOTE: most of my examples happened in actual pirating Earth history. One random list: "The Ten Best Pirate Attacks in History".

  • $\begingroup$ one virtual point for mentioning colonization... but only virtual because TECHNICALLY, that's privateering. $\endgroup$
    – Adam Wykes
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 3:42
  • $\begingroup$ @AdamWykes - I fail to appreciate the meaningful difference to the tactical approaches :) $\endgroup$
    – user4239
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 4:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's not a question of tactics, it's a question of legality. Privateers are legally sanctioned irregulars performing piracy on only some flags, under the flag of the sanctioning nation. They cannot be tried as criminals, but instead as combatants. In WWI, for example, German raiders caught by allied navies were POWs, not suspects or convicts. $\endgroup$
    – Adam Wykes
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 6:02
  • $\begingroup$ @AdamWykes - that is making an assumption that the appicable attitudes and legal standards match 20th century and not 16th/17th (where privateers were hung just as happily as pirates) $\endgroup$
    – user4239
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ With all due respect, the reception of Francis Drake in England was rather better than a hanging. How you got treated depended on the court you wound up in, of course. For actual pirates, no court could be so trusted. $\endgroup$
    – Adam Wykes
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 13:06

It sounds like you are correctly thinking about the cost of orbital maneuvers. In space, all ships are compelled to be constantly falling towards some body or another. To board another ship you need to be falling in the same place, at the same time, at the same velocity, which means you are on the same trajectory, and so whatever costly maneuvers the victim had to do, the pirate has to do them also.

For example, to intercept a ship going to Mars, you need to be able to match its velocity, so that means you need to be able to go to Mars also. And as we know, that's expensive.

And if you aren't leaving at the same time, you need yet more fuel to catch up. Then when you get there you need more fuel to slow back down and match velocity, if you intend to board.

Due to the tyranny of the rocket equation, this little bit of extra fuel that you need to catch up, then slow down, is extremely expensive because you need more fuel to lift that fuel into orbit. So you might conclude that in a universe where travel to Mars is common, but still very expensive, then space piracy is uneconomical since the fuel would cost more than the goods.


A space pirate ship doesn't need room for cargo, but just a couple pirates and some guns (or maybe some other weapon that doesn't cause explosive decompression in space). Again because of the rocket equation, as cargo is added it gets exponentially more expensive to launch it. If we posit that a cargo-laden ship to Mars is feasible, then a pirate ship with no cargo would be a tiny fraction of the cost.

Also, if your pirates don't strictly need to land, or come back. That's a huge fuel savings. They can either intercept the ship, die trying, or have the space equivalent of the coast guard rescue them. Compare:

  • Vostok-L 8K72, 277,000 kg. Launch vehicle of Luna 2, first man-made object to hit the moon without slowing down.
  • Saturn V, 2,938,000 kg. Launch vehicle of Apollo 11, first thing to land on the moon and come back in one piece.

Furthermore, consider not only the value of the goods, but their situation. As we've already established, sending cargo to Mars is expensive. So, being in possession of some cargo already headed to Mars is a lot more valuable than being in possession of the same cargo still on Earth.

I think between these two things, you can feasibly have pirates if you want them. Of course you'll need to have reasons that it's easier to intercept goods in transit rather than at docks or whatever, but I think that's pretty easy because it's the same reason pirates have always existed: space is big, and help is a long way away. Your pirates need just a little stealth and cunning.

And, if shipping between planets is very common, you can just hang out, in a sense. Not stationary in the intuitive sense, but you can put yourself in an orbit near the shipping lanes and hang out. You just put yourself in a slightly higher orbit and keep orbiting until something interesting ends up on a similar trajectory where an intercept isn't costly. It's a bit like dropping into the slow lane of the freeway and waiting for something interesting to pass. Convienence stores and hospitals are probably doing something similar.

Seems your bigger problem is explaining the economics of transporting cargo to Mars in the first place, especially in a world where chemical rockets are still in use. I guess you lift it into orbit in pieces, then put it on a more efficient ion drive for the long haul. Still though, what is it being transported to Mars, and why isn't it just made on Mars instead? Whatever it is, it must be extremely valuable, and so I guess all the more worth pirating.

What do they do after intercepting the ship? What do all pirates do? Hold the crew or cargo for ransom, or redirect it, get it on land, and scatter it about before the law catches up. Today there are never more than a dozen people in space, but when space has become accessible you'll have the full gamut of illicit activity we have on Earth. There will be slums where there's no law to catch you, and there will be corrupt officials. People will sneak across borders. I don't see any problem.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Environments outside of Earth are not conducive to slums and lawless uncontrolled territory, much less unmonitored places teeming with unknown masses into which the pirates could just disappear with their exceedingly expensive goods. Everyone will know where you are and what you stole - everyone on Mars, whose lives depend on those shipments and delicate managed environments, will be welcoming to pirates jeopardizing the ability for everyone to continue living, and people on Earth are happy to continually pay absurd amounts of money to ship near-priceless goods to a pirate haven. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 15:32
  • Aided launch

In the case of a station-aided launch, such as a railgun, the spaceship would likely be projected at high velocity, and an early interception would be impossible.

  • Unaided launch

If the ship accelerates on its own, it would receive an acceleration of likely around 3g, that is roughly $30\left(\frac{m}{s^2}\right)$, meaning that after ten seconds it will have reached $300\left(\frac{m}{s}\right)$, far faster than any earthbound common car. Even in the situation any collision would be fatal to both ships.

  • MECO

Now follows a main engine cut off, and the spaceship aligns its final injection trajectory. Its acceleration is now 0, and the spaceship will rely on thrusters from here on out.

  • Deep Space

Deep space is the boring bit of the flight, however the trajectories will have been narrowly set. It could be possible for a pirate ship to intercept the spaceship at this point. The best point would be some days away from either planet, while still within reach of a base of some kind. It is highly unlikely that a ship could be found by luck, and detailed flight plans would be required.

The high velocities of space travel make a small angle of interception incredibly important. A head on collision would destroy both ships. It is likely that the pirate would have to use the momentum of the planet's rotation to be able to keep up with the target. The interception would require extreme skill and careful planning.

Note that when the two ships collide, they will both have a new high velocity course headed for deep space. The pirate ship would have to have a plan for escaping this (like using the moon's gravity), either way the target ship will likely never reach its destination.

If you want some kind of manoeuvrability, or even the ability to significantly alter trajectories, the pirate ship would need exceedingly large engines or full boosters. There wouldn't be casual pirates, every heist would be a master plan.

  • $\begingroup$ Would the high relative velocities be mitigated a bit if the pirate ship originally started out quite near the first ship, so there wasn't as much acceleration to worry about? Also, note that my flight plans only involve going from one space station to another; the trip to orbit is already dealt with by the small shuttles. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 I've edited my answer. $\endgroup$
    – Feyre
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 20:02

Legislate them into existence.

Several laws can be taken to allow "safe" commercial use of space pathways (there would be some orbital transport hubs, right?) that would encourage piracy.

First of all, if there's a fight and ship gets damaged, debris starts flying around and that's bad. Like, "not ewen we, the Government, would be able to launch new spy satellites" bad. It's easier to just ban fighting in space than to deal with results. Same with all types of guns and explosives on ships. Even if you defend your ship from pirates but investigation shows you had guns - well, you lose your license.

Second, taking out a ship captured by terrorists would still produce debris. As a solution, only allow government-approved docking systems that prevent ship controls from evading docking and allow ship that wants to dock to do it no matter what target thinks about that - if presented with the right access code that is only available to any law enforcement ship and wil be leaked almost right away.

Serve it generously covered with the same sauce as gun-free zones and whole TSA stuff and people will demand these changes. Even people that are not planning piracy!

Have several competing governments

If there are different airspaces (spacespaces?) belonging to different governments, crimes committed in one spacespace can be sort of ok in another. More than tht, if these governments are actively competing, they could enable, or even actively encourage piracy in their competitors' spacespaces, like it was with real pirates. Go to one sector, plunder some booty, come back to another sector and sell it. As long as you don't commit atrocities like mass murder or drawing a Disney Copyrighted character on the hull of your ship, you're safe (and in some cases mass murder would be ok too).

Interception mechanics

Again, it would be pretty simple: for the same "safety" reasons, allocate space corridor for each travelling ship. Commercial ships have to comply with this, pirate ships - not so much. As a result, pirate ships know exactly and in advance where and when their target would be and can intercept it easily. The trick would be to plan their course to intercept the target far away from stations so that sending help has no point - and also crossing boundaries between we-pirate-here and we-trade-here sectors according to pre-approved flight plans. They don't want to lose their licenses in we-trade-here sectors, do they?


With the technology you propose, its very unlikely piracy in any form is practical.

First, consider that chemical propulsion is already very close to its theoretical limits. You mention SSTO shuttles - although proposed multiple times, nobody yet has even proved that an SSTO can have a feasibly sized payload (with respect to takeoff mass). Even if the SSTO itself weights nothing, the payload fraction won't be very large when taking off from earth to low orbit, simply because chemical fuels themselves do not contain enough energy for their own mass.

Ion engines provide very high specific impulses, reducing the fuel mass fraction for a given delta-v drastically (compared to chemical thrusters). The catch is, you can't have high thrust and high impulse at the same time - this is because the energy requirement squares with exhaust velocity; this makes increasing energy input to the ion engine the limiting factor. You would need an energy source of enormous efficientcy (per weigth) to get anywhere near the thrust of the smallest chemical thruster. The only thing that comes to mind would be nuclear propulsion (either a fission or fusion reactor - and it would still require major improvements in weight reduction of the reactor). Ion engine driven probes accelerate very slowly over long periods of time exactly because of this property.

Next, piracy by boarding increases the required delta-v by a large margin. First you need to get where your victim is, then reduce your relative velocity to zero, then accelerate again to get away. Taking away any bulk cargo from the victim becomes impractical, as this would further increase your fuel needs to accelerate said cargo away from the victim and later decelerate it to actually sell it. And if the pirate ship is small to begin with, so are its fuel reserves.

There is also the problem that its very hard to force docking if the victim decides not to let you. The victim just needs to put his ship into a spin, and the only thing you could do would be to threaten them with destruction to make them cooperate.

Visibilty in space, as already answered elsewhere makes it hard to hide your actions. Unless you introduce some sort of cloaking device, which could be physically feasible: Have a sail or shield on one side thats actively cooled to avoid emitting any radiation and get rid of the excess heat by radiating it to the other side. One could point the coold side sunwards and radiate the heat away, thus avoiding detection by thermal imaging from anything between the sun and the pirate. Combine with a carefully selected course to avoid transiting any bright stars. You'd be a brightly lit marker for anyone watching from your hot side though (and they would most likely be able to tell you're actively cloaking by taking a spectrum of the radiation you emit). The question is who would supply a cloaking device to the pirates? And it would add more unwanted mass to the ship.

In short, if there is piracy in your setting it will look very different from what piracy looks with seagoing ships.

The alternative is to carefully tailor technology and setting to constraints that make piracy practical. For example, the novel The Mote in Gods Eye is largely driven by the technology depicted.

  • $\begingroup$ he catch is, you can't have high thrust and high impulse at the same time - one can it is just a question of TWR, but the catch really is what you wrote - energy^2 . Problem with heat cloak is active maneuvers - it will be hard to cover all exhaust cloud by sail. It will disperse over time, even if it was perfect bean initially, just because of stellar media. Bigger sail-screen harder to avoid stars covering. But yes some countermeasures are possible, effectiveness depends. But put observers at 20 a.u. orbits too to prevent them from cloaking that way. Overall good answer. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 11:19
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg Hehe, yeah the cloaking would come with some strings attached, accelerating will render your cloak leaky. But that may make a good plot device, exactly because it isn't a foolproof magical cape. Likewise, far away observers will have a significant time lag in seeing suspicious events and reporting them. This could be used as a story element: We've been seen, but we have 8 hours until anyone gets the message! But anyhow it would drastically change the possible approaches to piracy. $\endgroup$
    – Durandal
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ Oh and for the just dump more energy into the engine: Thats pretty limited already as the exhaust approaches the speed of light, with current Ion engines having already exhaust velocities in range of 30-100km/s. While c is still 3000 times larger, thats only 3 to 4 orders of magnitude. Not much room for thrust increases without reaction mass throughput increase. $\endgroup$
    – Durandal
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ and 8 orders by energy. "Not much room for thrust increases without reaction mass throughput increase." - we have small ion engines - because we mostly need then so, because we do not have good energy sources, etc - in this etc there is no one as it is impossible to make ion engine with high mass throughput, real problem is mass-efficient dense energy source. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg The 8 orders of energy are irrelevant, we want velocity. Ekin = 1/2mv^2. The rocket equation is still true for Ion engines: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsiolkovsky_rocket_equation This threw me off, too - its a mistake seemingly everyone makes at first. Reaction engines are limited by this *universally. No matter how much energy you can suck out of your energy source, the c limit for the exhaust screws it all. $\endgroup$
    – Durandal
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 20:40

A note regarding the ease of detection of craft in space: it is extremely difficult. Things is space are very very far away from one another. The best picture ever taken of Mars from Earth is this :


It was taken by the Hubble, and has a spacial resolution of about 10 miles. Now, Mars is ~4000 miles in diameter. If you have some very large ship, let's say 500ft long, that's 0.003% of the diameter. Mars has an albedo of ~0.15. The darkest currently existing material, Vantablack, has an albeo of 0.00035, 428 times darker. This would mean it's about 18,079,913 times harder to see a black spaceship orbiting Mars than the planet itself.

We can do better. The James Webb Space Telescope has approx. 0.1 arc-seconds of angular resolution. With some simple trigonometry, that means it can resolve an object 500ft long 195,000 miles away. Resolve, but not necessarily detect. The Hubble has detected objects with a apparent magnitude of 30 (a flux of around 6*10^-7). At Martian distances, the Sun is about 40% as bright as Earth, so an object made of Vantablack at that distance from the Sun would have a luminosity of 0.19 W/m^2. Flux is F = L / 4 π d2, where L is luminosity and d is your distance from the light source. Total luminosity, with an area of 400m^2, is 57 watts. This results in the Hubble being able to identify such a ship from a around (very rough) 4700 miles away.

Now, that may sound like a lot, but it is very much not. If (as in the OP) spaceships can travel the 500,000km to the Moon in 2 days, they are traveling at a very minimum 1.798 mi/s, or would be able to make up that distance in 43:30. There's not a whole lot of orbital manuvering you can do in that time, assuming you detect the enemy immediately. This can only happen is if every ship is carrying a Hubble-class telescope pointed directly at the spot where the pirate ship in question will appear, just waiting for it to become visible. This is of course absurd, making it nearly impossible to detect a darkened, unregistered, pirate ship coming at you from deep space.

  • $\begingroup$ with an area of 400m^2, is 57 watts. This results in the Hubble being able to identify such a ship from a around (very rough) 4700 miles away. Spitzer will see those 57 W from a distance about 800'000 km, and those 400m^2 of Vantablack at mars orbit it will see from a distance of about 50 million km. You can read my answer), but nice try nice try. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 11:48
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg while that may be true, that observation was with 20hrs of observation time, and a well (compared to a pirate ship coming in on an unknown vector) know orbit, so it's a little misleading to say that the Spitzer will just "see" the ship $\endgroup$
    – Ash Pera
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ little misleading - not at all, observation do not consist only from seeing the object, but making science here. they took 680 + something snapshots of the object - so exposition in average 105 seconds. But even if we take 20h observation, to reduce it to 10 seconds a object have to be 84 times closer(to capture same amount of energy from the object as in 20h), or the reflector, its diameter have to be 84 times bigger. Against ships which make 50000 km/s, I'll say we should have a bigger mirror. Point was if do not see optical, see infrared, do not see infrared, see in optical spectrum etc. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 19:01

Alright. I've decided to transform my set of comments into an answer. Well.. the logic in @kingledion answer is pretty nice. From there, if a pirate ship is undetectable, then it might steal a ship with no one noticing. Also, there are plenty of nice answers here not relying on pirates having a ship and intercepting. Mine will do.

Definition 1: We will define anything with the potential of government quick response as GQRs. They might be stations, bases, planets, moons, patrol ships, whatever.

Doing piracy: There are two places to attack: (1) Near GQRs or (2) not near GQRs. =). (1) In near GQRs, goverments will certainly quickly respond to any distress call (by definition), with high speed fighters or worse. If (2), goverment will not quickly respond (by definition!).

Proposition 2: It is risky to do piracy near GQRs. Proof: We do attack near GQRs. High speed fighters will quickly intercept us. If we are detectable, we are doomed. If we are undetectable, they will investigate, and maybe see us with naked us. Or fire blindly. Thus its risky. We conclude the proof.

The solution is simple: Be non-near GQRs. If you are detectable, they will see you coming, and will prepare for you. (Either weapons in the cargoship, or deviate from you if you get too closed). Dangerous, risky, and has many possibilities of going wrong. We hereby need to be undetectable.

The Ship: Have a pirate ship P. Now, cover full whole with nice 100% re-directing meta materials. Incident radiation will be redirected and making it invisible to radar. Thermal signature can be extinguished by a rather simple method.

The Invisibility: Proposition 3: Pirate meta-material hull cannot receive heat. Proof: There is only two ways to receive heat. (1) From outside, (2) from inside. (1) By hypothesis, incoming radiation is redirected. Since there is no convection/conductance in space, we are done. (2) Separate inside with nice good insulators. It will insulate the heat for the amount of time needed: few months. Then we are done. This concludes the proof.

Proposition 4: If we wait long enough, the pirate ship hull will not emit detectable thermal radiation. Proof: We know hull will not receive heat. But it will emit heat by blackbody radiation, at expense of its own temperature. Which will decrease, and emit less and less blackbody radiation. Solution is then simple: A pirate will launch its ship, and wait a little. =). By my calculations, given a ship with outside hull area $A$, hull mass $m$, hull specific heat $c$, and initial temperature $T_0$, the time needed to drop temperature from $T_0$ to $T_0/2$ is: $$ t_c = \frac{7mc}{3T_0^3 A\sigma} $$

Where $\sigma$ is Stefan-Boltzmann constant. If we plug some OK values, we will find out no much is needed to wait (a few days only). The invisibility thus works. Now, we need to make sure you survive the trip.

The Heat Problem: The ship cannot and will not have heat exchange with outside. You will then risk increasing inside temperature. This can be done creating an inside atmosphere of plenty heat capacity. If you produce power $P$, then temperature inside will increase: $$ \frac{dT}{dt} = \frac{P}{mc} $$

Method 01: Then, if we have a 10x10x10 place for you, filled with water, and if we produce 1000W, it will increase interior temperature at a rate of $1.6$ kelvins per month. (Yes, you wear some under-water cloth to ensure your survival). (It is evident that you won't fill with water and launch. You will launch and fill with water). But this is a bad method.

Method 02: In a nicer method, we manage heat. We create to compartments, one for you and one for heat. And we transfer all waste heat from your room, to heat room. The rooms are separated by insulators. The transfer can be some refrigerator, or peltier device. In heat room, we place something to store the heat (say.. water!). Or whatever high heat capacity material one prefers. The previous calculations will then apply to the heat room.

Method 03: A much more better way (suggested by @Samuel in the comments), is to have blackbody radiation out (perhaps even from the heat room). But, before let it out, transform it in a unidirectional beam (with set of mirrors or lenses or whatever), and point it to a direction perpendicular to the orbital plane. No one is going to see it. You can further assume no one is cloaked, and then you know everyone's position. And then you can point it so no one will detect. =).

Equipped with an undetectable ship, you can match speed of some other ship. This can be done by selecting target while in near GQRs, set up nice burst (no chemical out of preference...) and patiently wait. Burst could be, say.. some reaction to produce $H_2O_2$ and expel it. It will produce barely detectable infrared signature.

Pirating: Method 01: Once you are very near the ship. (1) Disable broadcast capabilities. Maybe shoting all antenas at the same time, or almost at the same time. (2) Open a hole in incoming ship (maybe spotting some glass and breaking it) (out of preference, the main bridge glass), invade it, take control. (3) Now you can program the ship to continue the trip normally. When arrive in planet you set it to go, have it programmed to land in middle of no where, where some of your colleagues will be waiting in there. Steal, and go away. Simple. =).

Pirating: Method 02: Contact incoming ship and say you will blow it to pieces unless some money is transferred to some account. If money is not transferred, well, blow it to pieces. =) (maybe some torpedo).

Conclusion: There are plenty more and more methods to make it possible. The key is to adapt. Applying these strategies again and again, the government undoubtedly will engage successful countermeasures. No strategy survive forever. Adapt. In sea, maybe the equivalent of this, would be pirates in submarines. =D. Well.. If someone have spot some mistake let me know. =).

  • $\begingroup$ probably most important objection is propulsion and "It will produce barely detectable infrared signature." - how much? Where are my money Monya?(c) $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 11:38
  • $\begingroup$ You speak about pumping heat from cold room to hot room. That requires spending energy, which goes away as more excess heat you'd have to contain. If amount of work you have to do for the next step is proportional to amount of steps you've already done, you're fighting an uphill battle, it's very impractical. Also, if you only accelerate while visible everyone can know your course, what's the point of stealth? You'd have to launch a cluster of stealthed ships and make them bounce from each other so they can take unprediceted routes. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ Accelerating while invisible would not work because you'd have to keep your exhausts cloaked too. Stealth itself would not work either. Hauling around kilotons of ballast does not seem like a good option - if you can do that, you'd be better off hauling cargo. What you say about metamaterials looks like straight up Maxwell demon. Maybe you've confused something that works for a specific wavelength with something that works in all range? Do you consider yourself worthy of your name:)? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 15:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Physicist137 Just open a window pointing away from the orbital plane to let the heat out. No one is going to see it and you won't overheat. It's really that simple. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel Nice idea. Thanks! Edited. =). $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 12:41

While each of the other posters makes excellent points with their thoughts, there is one final determining factor regarding whether piracy is practical:


As the creator of this world, you only have to answer one question: Is there a net economic benefit to the pirates that is sufficient incentive to engage in piracy (i.e., does the profit outweigh the costs)?

All other factors mentioned will impact this:

  • Cost of space travel: This already has to be relatively low for there to be an economic benefit to shipping goods worth stealing.
  • Orbital mechanics: This will contribute to the cost factor.

The answer to this question will also shape the type of piracy you're likely to see. IMO, the most likely thing you're going to see is not piracy, but barratry or hijacking, most likely by substituting "the bad guys" for key members of the crew and sailing the vessel to a different port; the majority of the crew and passengers wouldn't even need to know what had happened until arrival. This could even be accomplished by the substitution of a single key crewmember or (as someone else pointed out) by hacking.

Additional thoughts, several days after the fact:

  • Shipping routes (piracy targets) will be fairly predictable. A shipping company's goal is to get goods from point A to point B while minimizing costs.

  • This means is that they're going to use a minimum-fuel orbit and will not likely have much reserve to flee, if attacked.

  • I.e., a ship leaving Mars with a shipment of goods for Earth on Wed., Feb. 9, 2316, 0200 UTC and a scheduled arrival date 97 days later will have one and only one minimum-fuel orbit; this will be easily calculated by the would-be pirate.

  • Due to the orbital relationship between Earth and Mars (or other planets), there may well be shipping "seasons" when the fuel cost is a minimum and the profits to shippers are at a maximum; these would also be piracy "seasons." "Off-season" cargos would likely be high-value/low-mass items.

  • Historically, many pirates were not full-time pirates. They were often otherwise legitimate privateers or cargo ships who engaged in some piracy on the side as supplemental income.

Some of these may also shape the OP's world. I.e., a story entitled "Pirate Season" about the risks of shipping during the prime season for pirates.


If your question is only about the orbital mechanics, the answer is yes (doable) -- iff you have the energy and reaction mass (often posed as available delta-V.) But those resources are expensive, so a smart pirate would likely look for valuable ships, ideally low on fuel, within the pirate's delta-V budget (however big that is.)

Hitting a laden ship, near the end of its deceleration into a port or (better) space station would be (fuel wise), the best tactic, I think.

Of course, station owners/governments can also do the math, so I'd expect there'd be some level of watch out for unknown vessels lurking in the "pirate Oort cloud" region around each major trading base. Probably including long-duration surveillance drones. But defenses are expensive, and smaller bases/ports might not be able to sense as well or as far out.

A successful pirate will need stealth, guile (including hacking) as well as physics to get the Latinum!


I think you could make it economically plausible. It's roughly 50 years in the future so we can expect some advances to be made. Mainly to cheapen initial loads in to space as well as once in infrastructure becomes more available.

Earth based piracy would be costly as well as easier to intercept and stop but if you have colonies at the moon and Mars it's not to unreasonable that corporations and private actors has started to spread out in the solar system.

If there is a phase of rapid expansion without regulations and control it could be ripe for space piracy or privateers. Corporations paying for looting or destruction of competitors.

I suggest reading this:


It's about some of Elon Musk's plans for coming rockets and plans. In your universe if one or two similar revolutions of rocket technology has happened it's not unreasonable to motivate the costs.

A pirate/privateer could be based on some small scale fuel operation and once that infrastructure and vessel is in place the biggest initial costs are dealt with. If fuel is readily available and they can afford to burn a lot both for intercept as well as placing themselves next to the target different weapons could be used for destruction or some sort of grappling device.

And in the end if you can't tie it all together come up with an explanation as to why an em drive works and work from that.


Other answers seem to be assuming 1) that the pirates will attack with manned vessels, and 2) that the pirates want the ship they're attacking to remain habitable.

Unmanned vessels can be much lighter and survive much higher accelerations than manned vessels. Depending on what the pirates are trying to get, a semi-autonomous attack drone could breach the target ship, board, steal the goods while the passengers are getting sucked out the hole, and fly home. The tiny drone would be hard to see coming, hard to track leaving, and not need much fuel.

Orbital mechanics being what they are, if you want to redirect a ship to different location, a small change in direction at just the right time can do that. A similar unmanned drone could strike the target in a way that changed its direction, kill the passengers and crew, and help guide the target to the pirate rendezvous. This would require a lot of patience on the part of the pirates (months to decades between committing resources and getting a payout), but finding a ship taken this way would be very difficult - it might be interesting to explore the possible countermeasures. (Pirate ships might be small and dark, but how well can you hide a stolen ship the size of star destroyer with an albedo of 1 and a loud distress beacon?)

If the targeted ships do remain habitable (or can be repaired), they could not be used to interact with the dominant civilization without coming under suspicion. Selling those ships would not happen in a black market so much as a fringe society, which gets pushed outward as civilization expands.


It's a very interesting question when and how piracy might first start happening. By 2065, I think there is very little chance of it in the form of manned pirate spaceships boarding and capturing manned non-pirate ships for fun and profit.

As others have said, it is mechanically possible, but it takes a lot to do so. Even by 2065, probably most spacecraft will try to be efficient and so not have a lot of extra capacity for maneuvers such as running after other spacecraft. If you want to capture the victim for yourself, it also needs to have excess capacity to go places and operate in ways other than the mission it was designed and fueled for.

Not entirely what you asked, but beyond that, it seems to me there would tend to be far more important obstacles in terms of the results of pirating. The very wealthy and powerful governments and/or corporations involved will no doubt take action against someone pulling this stunt, if they can. And by 2065, even if the world is quite chaotic and has rival nations and/or corporations who would provide sanctuary or even privateering letters of marque to those who would rob their rivals' space operations, I wonder where one would be able to go with the booty afterwards? Are you going to try to live in space indefinitely? If you're going back to Earth, you'll want good ways to avoid being identified and attacked by the offended party and/or military & law enforcement in general.

There may be ways to solve all these considerations, but they should at least be addressed.

For example, if small unmanned ships and electronic control are involved, that might have possibilities. Or holding space missions hostage while maintaining anonymity somehow.

Or perhaps if there are lunar and/or Martian colonies and/or other space stations which are somehow self-sustainable, some people might try a mutiny and/or to assert their own autonomy, providing more possibilities.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .