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I'm looking for a weapon a ship can carry that can disable a ship without any permanent damage to its subsystems or significant hull breaches. This will mostly be used by pirate factions (capturing a ship to hijack and/or loot) and law enforcement (retrieving stolen ships and capturing fugitives alive, etc.)

I don't believe EMP is a viable option due to its ability to permanently damage electronics. This is meant to be a highly specialized weapon for people who want the ship and/or its crew/cargo intact for boarding. Often times the ship needs to be able to fly away after being captured.

I had one thought of a weapon that forcefully shuts down the main fusion reactor of a vessel by one of two methods:

  • Disrupting a continuing fusion reaction by denying one of the conditions required to sustain it.
  • Introducing elements that would cause containment to fail and forcing an emergency shutdown, either automatic or done by those aboard.

The goal of either method is to force the reactor to power down and have to 'cold start' off auxiliary/reserve power, which would take time. By that time, boarding parties would be on the ship.

Is there anything that already exists (even theoretically) that could potentially bypass all of the armor, electromagnetism and thermal/radiation shielding of a fusion reactor and introduce conditions that would shut it down?

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  • $\begingroup$ What kind of ship? A pirate ship like in the movies? Even today, there are several kinds of ships from very low tech to very high tech. Most ships do not fly though. What about a giant net? I believe we need more information $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 28 '17 at 12:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 if you'd bother having a look at the tags for this question you'd see the spaceships tag. $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Jun 28 '17 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ @dot_Sp0T Oh I'm sorry, spaceship. Luckily there is only one kind of space ship. Watch out, Apollo 12, pirates are out to get you! I would capture it on reentry with a regular ship and I'd still use my net. Are you actually kidding me? And I personally find a tag that implies whatever a bad way to justify a sloppy question $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 28 '17 at 12:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 Be nice $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Jun 28 '17 at 12:35
  • $\begingroup$ @dot_Sp0T It's a trap! But luckily I was very nice $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 28 '17 at 12:36

18 Answers 18

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A muon beam.

It will pass through matter until it loses enough energy. Then it deposits an electron and a lot of energy.

Let’s suppose the muons are tuned to directly interfere with the power system (e.g. acting as a catalyst in fusion). Safety systems will detect excursions that are not controlled as expected, and shut it down.

As a bonus side effect, the penetrating negative charges also introduce errors in their computers, flipping bits and trashing memory but not destroying the chips (or whatever they are).

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the sound of this one a lot. The 2.2 microsecond mean lifetime of a muon even gives it a short range (on the scale of space, anyways.) If the beam were a light/laser based weapon, 2.2 microseconds would give it a range of ~600 meters. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Jul 7 '17 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ @arvex no, the lifetime is greatly extended in a beam due to special relativity. They were first detected being produced in the upper atmosphere — far more than 600 meters away. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 8 '17 at 1:48
  • $\begingroup$ «As an example, so-called "secondary muons", generated by cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere, can penetrate to the Earth's surface, and even into deep mines.» on the linked page. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 8 '17 at 1:50
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Remote hacking

Depending on the technology standards of your universe, it might be worth considering the applications of remote hacking. Given that you want to leave as many of the ship's systems and components intact while simultaneously depriving the inhabitants of access, it would make a lot of sense to target the authority over those systems, which would almost certainly be some kind of computer.

With a high-powered wireless transmitter and sufficient algorithms, it would be quite plausible to apply existing attack methods (DDoSing comes to mind).

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Jun 28 '17 at 7:26
  • $\begingroup$ While I like the idea of hacking a ship to disable it, that might gain a bit more control over the ship than I was looking for. Still something to consider as another method for stopping a ship. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Jun 28 '17 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps the ship has closed circuit systems, and there's a projectile weapon that can penetrate the hull of the ship and infect systems with a virus? A sort of cluster bomb of remote controlled USB sticks, seeking ports and downloading to them - so the crew would have to search the ship for the little bots and destroy them, then re-start the systems and perhaps re-install software. Minimal permanent damage but heavy short-term disruption; and the bots could infect as many or few ships systems as the story demands. $\endgroup$ – Matt Bowyer Jul 4 '17 at 23:41
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    $\begingroup$ In Cowboy Bebop's "Wild Horses", a group of hackers uses harpoons to physically deliver viruses that disable ships they can then abduct. There seems to be a standard OS called the "mono system" in that world to control ship systems, though backups can take over. $\endgroup$ – Nick T Jul 8 '17 at 2:25
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Have you tried a weapon that was designed to raise the heat of the space ship? Vaccumes are notoriously good insilants and cooling is a space ship was always a harder problem for NASA than heating it. Perhaps a laser beam that doesn't do any hull damage, but will cook the ship... if your pirates are keen on taking the ship's space wenches, you don't even have to smoke them out. Just keep the heat on the ship (literally) and rely on the ship's safeties and power routing systems to cool units rather than defense of the ship or engine power (both of which will cause the ship to heat up under natural use). It could even put the computer into an emergency state... essentially the space ship equivelent of leaving your iPhone in your car during a summer heat wave... at a certain temperature, the phone will disable everything save for Emergency calling. Once the ship cools off most systems should be intact, unless you have an intrepid smuggler who is most definately bypassing safeties to get away from you.

Might even be better to have somekind of attached device as the laser can be beaten by staying out of the firing arc. If your hero is the victim of said pirates, they could even try to rely on his ship outlasting yours (a laser device generating heat in enough qualities to overwelm an enemy ship is probably going to put your own ship into a redzone).

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  • $\begingroup$ That could be one approach. I'll keep it in mind. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Jul 3 '17 at 23:30
  • $\begingroup$ Put a giant bag of thin foil over the ship to insulate it. Or paint the ship white. Both will stop heat radiating away. $\endgroup$ – Donald Hobson Jul 8 '17 at 8:32
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A big glove on a spring.
I know that spacey-fusion-flying-things are the pinnacles of technology. So is Tesla cars. Take a look at what it take to ground one. A circle made of chalk around it.
Or a dent that disrupt the sensor reading. It can be run probably in some "service mode" for a short time or with a low speed but if you would like to use it normally "the computer would say NO".

We all think about spaceships from movies, with force fields and Skywalker-like pilots. But we have space-stations and ships colonizing other planets. And they don't have magic bubbles around them.

So it would take just some small space debris hitting the right spot. Think again about car. Everything is inside it, the fuel tank, the engine, cables. BUT the fuel lines are outside. So it would take a car that is just a bit to low, going a tad to fast over a speed bump that could result in lowering the fuel flow to engine. Hell, last month I was driving behind a girl that had broken return line.

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I don't know of a way to remotely shut the reactor down, but you could force the crew to do it. One long distance method would be through warming the spacecraft up.

Currently, your spacecraft has this fusion reactor, which is igniting propellant and pushing the spacecraft along. But there's also waste heat, so your ship has these great big radiators which get rid of waste heat by converting it to infrared. Unbalance that system, and your spacecraft overheats.

So, your space pirates could shine something like an infrared laser at their target, and let it slowly overheat. It wouldn't have to be focused well, so it could be at a great distance. The hull would get warm, and radiators facing the pirates, instead of rejecting waste heat, would be accepting heat, so the system would be thrown out of equilibrium and the spacecraft would overheat.

Once their victims beg for mercy and do whatever the pirates demand (shut down the reactor, like you said, or maybe give remote access to their computers), our pirates would probably have to assist in cooling down their victim's spacecraft. Maybe they have attachable cooling systems built specifically for this purpose.

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    $\begingroup$ The idea of the attackers/boarders carrying the equipment for the field repair is an interesting idea. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Jul 3 '17 at 23:31
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, Arvex. One advantage for your setting is there wouldn't necessarily be any damage or loss of life, as long as our victims surrendered quickly enough. And the psychology of it would be interesting, wouldn't it? $\endgroup$ – Ariah Jul 4 '17 at 5:56
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A flashbang for spaceships

When we want to disable people without hurting them, one of the things we do is throw a device near them which briefly overwhelms their sensory inputs. The same principle works for electronics. In fact, if you shine a bright IR or UV light at many electric cameras, you'll blind them. In cases of extreme sensory overload, the damage can be permanent (for both electric devices and organic sensory organs) and require the sensory hardware be replaced.

This can be extended to spaceships. Imagine several devices ejected from an attacking ship which deploy themselves around a target ship. They can blast a ship with various bandwidths of radio and optical light to overwhelm their radar, optical cameras, etc. And a blind ship is effectively an incapacitated ship, unless it's capable of out running its attacker or the disruptive devices.

If you can permanently blind a ship, that's not necessarily a big problem since its ostensibly easy enough to fix if only the detectors need replacing and if those detectors aren't incredibly integrated with the rest of the ship hardware. And even if this fairly easy fix is too complicated to pull of as a field repair, the attacker ship could guide the target ship home after seizing it. That said, I have a hard time imagining a futuristic spaceship being permanently blinded so easily. While blinding devices may be able to do some damage to the detectors, these are detectors which need to operate during some pretty rough solar weather. It's possible that the blinding effect may only last while the devices are operational and properly deployed. This is workable too because it would provide a weakness for the blinding technology.

Whichever route you go, I think there are workable story elements.

Side note:

I had one thought of a weapon that forcefully shuts down the main fusion reactor of a vessel

Oh, god. This sounds terrifying.

  • While its conceivable you can figure out a way to do something to a ship's reactor that forces the crew to shut it down, that implies something bad will happen if they don't. Otherwise, why would they be "forced" to shut it down? So, what happens if they don't shut it down in time?
  • Finding a way to disrupt a reactor and trigger an uncontrolled shutdown doesn't sound any better. It actually sounds worse. This kind of technology requires special and careful choreography. Disrupting a fusion reactor sounds like you're turning it into a bomb.

TL;DR: Don't hurt the reactor. Don't touch the reactor. In fact, don't even look at the reactor.

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  • $\begingroup$ Depending on the style of reactor, a fusion reactor typically only has as much fuel as it needs in the reaction chamber to sustain fusion at any given time. Fusion is much harder to maintain than fission, so it's more prone to fizzling out than exploding. Aside from tricking the ship into dumping all of its fuel into the reaction chamber, you shouldn't get an explosion. I'm no expert on nuclear reactors, though. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Jul 3 '17 at 23:29
  • $\begingroup$ "Turn off your reactor or you will become a little star." Mmm, this doesn't sound very serious. Also a nuclear bomb would destroy both ships, no? $\endgroup$ – Ender Look Jul 4 '17 at 13:11
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"Intelligent" mesh

You launch a large projectile towards the enemy ship (you need to have already almost matched velocities). The projectile will unfold into a very large, conductive net that is able to enmesh the whole of the enemy ship, covering sensors and disrupting communications.

Several launched meshes could cooperate, and preventing a mesh from engulfing your ship, while possible, would be tricky and/or require EVAing outside of the hull armor's protection, or specialized hardware that law-abiding spacemen might not have handy.

For whatever reason, flying blind is not a good idea.

The mesh could also be capable of hacking the enemy ship once it has achieved contact, or could blind it to a subsequent boarding.

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Existing answers are pretty thorough. Here is one more that is a little more outre.

Reference: this excellent "crushed between two portals" video (the soundtrack makes it).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TZd95BCKMY&t=81s

If you have the right kind of FTL tech you could catch the ship in a pocket dimension - travel takes it through 1 portal and back out the next to remain in the same place. This maneuver can be called the @Raditz_35 net. Once in the dimension the ship and its occupants can do as they like. If you can communicate with them, you can hold them for random and insist they power down the ship and board a shuttlecraft to be set free.

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I don't know much about your ships like if they have FTL drive, shield, lasers, sub-light speed, etc but I'll try to make "universal" answers.

Remote Hacking

If you don't want to damage the ship you could try to hack them, ships has comunication sytems so you could try entering to their system by the comunication console. In Battlestar Galactica cylons used to hack humans ships to destroy them.
If a remote hacking by comunication console seems impossible you could make a little dron, this dron fly to the enemy ship, attach to their armor, search for a console or data cables, connect to them and start hacking. By radio or Wi-fi you comunicate to the dron and the dron hack the ship.
If you want be able to support the hacking you simply need a better firewall or programmer. Also you can do like in the series, in Galactica the main ship (I forget the name) used cables to connect the sub-networks of the ship and when they was under a hacking attack they simply unplug the network cable.

Electromagnetic Countermeasures

Ultra powerful magnetics turrent can "fire" an electromagnetic wave. You can use two ways to desactivate enemy ship:

  • Increase "slowly" (in 10 seconds) the power: You can make an annoying electromagnetic wave, harmless to electronic circuits but it increase his power all the time. The enemy ship would have to desactivate the circuits in order to not destroy them when the magnetic field become too powerful. Surrender or EMP.
  • Have an "electromagnetic shower": making a big and powerful EM wave you can "blind" the target, EM distrub communications, radar and even targeting systems, the ship would be incomunicate and blind. ¿Would you enter into the hyperspace or a wormhole blind?
  • A third way could be increasing the static energy of the ship by gamma ray, if the static is to high it will break technology and even kill the crew (in space static is a real danger). The only problem is that I see that in a sci-fi series and I don't know if that is possible.

Also, if you think that a EM turrent is too powerful or strange you can insted have mini drones that fly around the enemy ship and make the EM field.

Dron Brake

Ally ship (a big one) could launch hundreds of little drons, they attach to the enemy armor (by steel ropes or hooks) an fly to the opposite side. A lot of them would stop the ship, the problem is that you need a lot of them and they have low fuel storage also.

Ship Roop Tying

If you don't like drons you can have a lots of steel ropes launchers. They launch the ropes to the enemy and them attach to the ship, then your allies ships stops the enemy with they own thrusters.

Destroy the Thrusters

If enemy ship has ion-thrusters, EM thrusters, gravitional drives or something like that you can shoot to their thrusters, I don't think they will blow up, right?

Heat Laser

By a laser or microwaves you can heat enemy ships (in space ships doesn't cold down so easy). If the ship reach to a critical temperature the fussion reactor would turn off to avoid explode. Also people can die "cooked" or by deshidration.

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  • $\begingroup$ EM weapons were something I was considering. I must say the drone brake is actually pretty clever. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Jul 4 '17 at 20:58
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Going in another direction you could also stun the crew by either disrupting their brain waves to induce a sleep like state, the brain activity of deep level four sleep is distinctly different than REM and being awake. Or if they take control of the internal communications system they could emit a sound that can stun the crew.

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EMP. Despite popular belief, EMP does not "fry electronics", it simply interferes with them and rarely results in permanent damage. Cars for example might stall but can usually be restarted right away.

On a spaceship that might mean that you have to restart the hand-wavium reactor thus giving the pirates enough time to swoop in and steal the ship/cargo.

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The most obvious way to disable a ship is to target the crew.

If you have artificial gravity, it might be possible to apply a gravitational field on the target ship. Depending on the level, you could pin the crew to the ground, make them black out or even kill them without any significant damage to the ship.

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What about Sulfur Hexafluorine?

Instead of disrupting the fusion reaction itself, why not stop its electrical output. Alot of the space ship designs have the fusion reactor or power generator connected to the power systems of the ship through an almost arc system, shown by that wonderful dancing or condensed lightning somewhere in the ship. I would theorise that it was done like this to reduce electrical backdraft towards the reactor.

Sulfur Hexafluorine is inert and inhibits electric arcing. Such as duncking a tazer into this will stop the arcing of electricity through the air.

So if you could introduce Sulfur Hexafluorine into 'arc' chamber, the power systems will turn off. To reintroduce power, just extract all the gas from the chamber and let it fill back normally and the system will spark again. Theoritically with no damage to the ship. This is essentially the same a pulling the plug out, then plugging it back in again.

The only difficulty would be in introducing the gas into the chamber, whether you use:

  • Teleportation of a container of the gas to the right place, or even just the gas itself,
  • A robot drone of some sort to infiltrate the reaction chamber,
  • Hack the systems to release it, (this assumes that Sulfur Hexaflourine gas is already in place as a failsafe system).
  • Crew member infiltrate the ship and release the gas manually,
  • etc etc.

The best part is that those that wish to escape capture will have to come up with defenses while the attackers infilrators would have to be more clever to defeat said defenses.

To note as well, at least the life support systems will have a back up power source at least so the crew on board the disabled vessel will be fine, otherwise as soon as their shields go down, a mass teleportation of all crew into the hold/brig or just teleport them about 10 metres outside their own ship.

Another method is to just drug the whole crew with a release of gas but that is too easily preventable.

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You could also go with the basics: Threat of destruction.

Let the crew know you have the capability to destroy them, then kindly ask them to shut down their drives if they want to live.

This should qualify as something "that already exists that could potentially bypass all of the armor, electromagnetism and thermal/radiation shielding of a fusion reactor and introduce conditions that would shut it down."

This answer is pretty much the same as the remote hacking suggested in other answers, except targeted at organics instead of machines, and far easier to execute.

Another option is to bribe the engineer at the dock.

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If you've got good spies, discover the enemy ship's "combination code", like the Enterprise did to the Reliant in Wrath of Khan.

https://scifi.stackexchange.com/a/131703/73693

SPOCK: Reliant's prefix number is one six three zero nine.
SAAVIK: I don't understand.
KIRK: You have to learn why things work on a starship.
SPOCK: Each ship has its combination code.
KIRK: To prevent an enemy do what we're attempting. Using our console to order Reliant to lower her shields.
SPOCK: Assuming he hasn't changed the combination. He's quite intelligent.

Then shut down everything (except the fusion reactor!) and lock out the locals from getting back in.

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Just take a page out of Star Wars. Use gravity well generators to immobilize the enemy ship. Create a gravitational field so strong that the ships cannot move even at full throttle, and any weapons fired would rebound immediately. Since the gravity well is created in a uniform bubble around the enemy, the ship will be in no danger of being torn apart.

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  • $\begingroup$ Short of the type of space magic I'm trying to avoid (FTL excluded), I don't think there really is a way to generate a gravity well and project it like the Interdictor cruisers can. If you had that kind of energy, you could probably just make high power tractor beams that can hold a ship in place and potentially disarm it by tearing weapons from the hull. $\endgroup$ – Arvex May 4 '18 at 12:00
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Spaceships are less like nautical ships and more like bullets, specifically a bullet that can change direction, that can see you from multiple solar systems away, is actively trying to avoid you and last but not least has enough firepower to rival a 21st century superpower.

Suffice to say you need to ambush them.

There's two kinds of ambushes, you can either anticipate their path and "lie in wait" along that path, only to watch helplessly as they zip by at astronomical speeds, or set a baited trap. A distress signal/beacon is the bait and the seemingly abandoned spaceship or station is the trap, you want them to send some of their crew to investigate the ship/station then somehow use those investigators to gain a foothold aboard their ship.

For example you have someone very skilled covertly abduct one one the investigators aboard the ship/station and impersonate them, then that infiltrator either disables the target ship, kills everyone on board or steals whatever thing that's aboard that ship that you're after and escapes with it.

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