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In science fiction secret space stations typically seem to exist inside of a nebula or an asteroid. However it occurs to me that in warfare space stations hidden in nebulae would likely be discovered by enemy scouts. (Intel is key in war, and a conveniently located nebula is the obvious hiding place everyone would scout.)

So my question is if you were looking to hide a secret space station, how would you hide it? Or to be more specific, what celestial body would you hide it in/on/behind?

Edit: In this question I am more interested in what celestial body it would be best to use to hide a space station in. You can assume soft-science teleportation style FTL if you need to in order to reach a specific celestial body, but in this case assume also soft-science detection methods to allow for the searching of vast areas of space.

The general idea is to identify what object would make for the best cover/camouflage, not to simply lose the space station in the vastness of space. (For instance dropping it light years from any solar system, hiding in the emptiness.)

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    $\begingroup$ Are you interested in realistic science based answers or more "hollywood" logic style answers ? (either is fine in world building) because the differences are VAST. Realistically a nebula is typically billions of times thinner than the lightest mist and millions of times bigger than our solar system. In hollywood they're more like brightly coloured fog banks very similar to how fog banks were portrayed in WWI & II (guess where the writers got their inspiration). Also, "realistically" you're going to need millions of scouts to search the solar system. $\endgroup$ – John McNamara Sep 3 '17 at 22:20
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  • $\begingroup$ Seeing how large and how darn mindboggingly bright a typical star is, anywhere "close to" a star would probably do assuming your space station survives the radiation. It should be impossible to detect due to the amount of energy coming towards anyone looking/scanning, including in straight line of sight. $\endgroup$ – Damon Sep 4 '17 at 12:46
  • $\begingroup$ Camouflage it as an asteroid or, if it's big enough, as a moon =) $\endgroup$ – jean Sep 4 '17 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ As one of the comments below says - a 'swarm' of small pods may be more appropriate than a big space station. A 'space station' like the Death Star or similar is somewhat akin to an aircraft carrier on earth. Their days are numbered as we start to see more autonomous vehicles without humans in them. Fast forward 50 earth years and we may look at aircraft carriers are a quaint idea from 'the olden days'. Perhaps likewise the space station? $\endgroup$ – Ralph Bolton Sep 6 '17 at 9:38
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If you believe you can hide in a nebula that you don't understand what nebula are. Space is vast. It's trivial to hide anything, if distance is not important. Do you know how many Oort Cloud objects we know about, compared to how many are estimated to be out there? (None known (arguably) and billions estimated to exist at 20 km wide size range, trillions at the 1 km size.) I politely suggest you modify your post, or post again with some size and emissions criteria. If your "secret space station" can be supplied only occasionally, and is black as far as emissions go (a great reason to build it inside a (metallic) asteroid), then you'll only "find" it by great luck. I can imagine a future with Hubble quality telescopes being cheap and commonly used by computer surveillance systems. In such a future, hiding anything of significant size within 10 AU of Earth would be very difficult, but at 50,000 AU? Not a problem.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd give a lot more than +1 if I could. Pretty much nobody doing scifi/space fiction has any grasp how big space is. This question is like asking "how do you best hide a sand-grain sized diamond in a desert?" $\endgroup$ – R.. Sep 4 '17 at 19:31
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Behind a star or planet would be a good place; not in orbit but powered to remain behind it from the perspective of some other POV. However, any kind of "behind" implies a single direction or location of viewing. I can easily stay behind the Earth's Moon from the POV of Mars, taking all those orbitals into account: At any given point in time Mars and the Earth's Moon form a line I can be on to put the Moon between me and Mars.

That breaks down if we add Venus to the mix. Generally Venus and Mars are not both on the same line as the Moon, so hiding from one may not hide me from the other. If the enemy has a lot of scouts, hiding behind the star might work, but if they are on all sides of it, even something that big wouldn't work.

A better idea would be a disguise: Disguise the space station as an asteroid (or several of them) in the asteroid belt, or Oort cloud, or as a chunk of rock orbiting a planet like a Moon. Remember in space the disguise is weightless; so it could be an actual shell of rock or asteroid ice, perhaps even manufactured from the asteroids and dust in the belt (or wherever it is hiding); glued or netted together.

An even better approach would be a station that could land on small low-gravity moons and disguise itself as a natural terrain feature.

The strategy is to become a mottled brown needle in a haystack.

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  • $\begingroup$ So it seems that in order to hide from multiple vantage points it may be better to hide behind a dwarf planet in deep outer orbit? In this scenario it seems like it could hide from all of the central planets. $\endgroup$ – Braydon Sep 3 '17 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Braydon Then congratulations; you did not need to ask a question after all! $\endgroup$ – Amadeus Sep 3 '17 at 20:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Amadeus what about being out of the plane of the system. We commonly consider them ring like structures with bases, scouts and such all commonly near settlements. But above the plane how much scouting is done? Could be a workable angle, not too techie, not too fanatical re math, and just obvious enough that 'oh, we never looked there' would be a plausible plot point? $\endgroup$ – dcy665 Sep 4 '17 at 4:51
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    $\begingroup$ We're not told what sort of technology you have, but could you hide in something nearby to where you're required to be? Perhaps inside a star? Or "inside" a black hole? Either way, somewhere so apparently inhospitable that the scouts don't bother to look there. $\endgroup$ – Ralph Bolton Sep 4 '17 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Amadeus Space is big. Your approach would take forever. $\endgroup$ – Mast Sep 5 '17 at 6:46
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Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Adams was talking about all of Outer Space, but the quote is still true if you are just talking about a solar system. It is big. Really really big.

So, you have guessed that the enemy has a space station in an asteroid... somewhere in this system. Now find it. Not as easy as you might think. There is a large number of asteroids and they lie very far apart.

Let's narrow the scope a bit. You are fairly certain that the enemy is hiding an installation on/in Ceres, the largest asteroid. Now find it. Still not as easy as you might think.

If it functions as a space ship hangar, it will have a hatch you might see, but that hatch will be camouflage painted to look like the surrounding rock and will be very hard to spot from any distance at all. Even little Ceres has 2,770,000 km² of surface to search through. Good luck with that.

In short, hiding is easy if you don't do anything to attract attention, like using a radio.

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@Amadeus answer is pretty comprehensive. I was wondering if there might be something else.

You could hide your station by having it be one dimensional. Or essentially so. Objects are detected by how they emit / reflect radiation or how they occlude radiation. A piece of paper is easy to see face on; on edge no. A thread is not easy to see at all.

This station would be a long, low albedo black tube; essentially one dimensional by standards of bodies in space. It is big enough in diameter for a crew person to move along the interior. Initially I pictured a ladder but if the tube were very smooth on the inside, the few personel on board could move from place to place using pressurized air and an occlusive sabot.

The tube is long but would not emit or reflect or occlude much at any particular space. You would have to run into it to detect it unless crew activities gave it away.

Ouroboros station becomes a weapon when needed: the head grasps the tail and it becomes a ring. Across the ring is stretched a mirror or reflective mirror equivalent. By changing the curvature of the mirror, the station can concentrate sunlight at any given spot on the far side of the star. If there are 2 such stations between them they can cover the solar system.

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  • $\begingroup$ Depending on your technology, could you make your station forth dimensional? Perhaps place it right where it's going to be needed, but in 6 months time? $\endgroup$ – Ralph Bolton Sep 4 '17 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ @RalphBolton 6 months in the past will probably be more effective. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Sep 4 '17 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Will Long black tube -- Like a submarine... Not a bad idea. Made me think of another shape solution: one man spheres, thousands of them (containing people, equipment, supplies, solar energy production etc) "scattered" in space; connected by carbon-nanotube cables (100x stronger than steel of same diameter), In a laser-comm network with video and virtual reality, and they can be 'reeled' in to lock together and form a station on demand. Hard to detect just because no individual component has to be very big. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus Sep 5 '17 at 11:20
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The main problem with hiding a space station, or any powered space-based object, is waste heat. Anything that does anything worth it (electrical generator, life support, varied machines, crew...) generates waste heat, and this waste heat, at some point, has to escape the station. So an opponent only has to search for thermal signatures and detect objects that are hotter than they should to detect your station.

The question, then, is how to avoid this?

Basic thermodynamics prevent you from either trapping the heat with insulation (it will get out at some point, there is no way around it) or converting it to electricity (it is not heat that you can turn into electricity, but heat gradient, with heat flowing from the hot point to the cold point - so heat will still get out in the end).

The simplest solution is to bury your station in a big asteroid, moon or Kuiper object. Then you can dump your energy in the celestial body, and it is simply too big to be meaningfully heated by it, making your station undetectable. It is not strictly a space station anymore, but depending on what it is supposed to do, this may do the trick.

However, if you actually need a free-floating space station, then the only solution is to use the Hydrogen Steamer concept - see this answer on Stealth in Space: How realistic is it?

There will be enormous logistical constraints. You need to supply it with cryogenic liquid hydrogen on a regular basis, and the tankers will also have to be Hydrogen Steamers to avoid revealing your station. Their own hydrogen sources will have to be hidden, possibly aforementioned buried stations. Hydrogen Steamer endurance scales with its size, though, so a big enough station could theoretically last years or even decades on one refill. Maintenance will also have to be done with Hydrogen Steamer service crafts, and may have to deploy a shroud around the sections to be serviced.

None of those problems are insurmountable, though, only complicated and expensive.

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    $\begingroup$ If you know from which direction you might be watched, it's unnecessary to cool the entire station – just put a shield in this direction and cool that. This way, most of the actual waste heat can simply radiate out into another direction in space normally, and you only need a very small amount of LH for keeping the shield cold. $\endgroup$ – leftaroundabout Sep 4 '17 at 14:17
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As other people have mentioned, you need to have no emissions (or nearly none) in order to stay undetected. This is because a single warm spot in a sea of cold is darned obvious. Dealing with all that excess heat is hard work, so instead of trying to be a cold needle in a cold haystack, be a hot needle in a burning haystack and sit in close orbit to a star.

This way you can dump all your excess heat outwards (along with all the heat you pick up from being so close to said star) and all your emissions will get lost in the output of the star itself. This also conveniently puts you very close to the center of the system, unlike most other people's suggestions of being far away.

Of course, dealing with that much extra heat all the time will be difficult in a hard-science universe and I do not know the science behind doing so, but in a soft-science universe, it should work fine.

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In the past there have been ships which have been disguised as an island to pass unnoticed

HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen was a Jan van Amstel-class minesweeper of the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNN). Built during the 1930s, she was based in the Netherlands East Indies when Japan attacked at the end of 1941. Ordered to retreat to Australia, the ship was disguised as a tropical island to avoid detection, and was the last Dutch ship to escape from the region.

Your space ship is in space, so you can try to disguise it as an asteroid, and let it orbit somewhere until the occasion comes to proceed with its mission.

You have to take care of reducing as much as possible the EM noise produced by the ship (you know, an asteroid broadcasting Venus got talent is quite suspicious...).

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Hide it in plain sight. Bury it in a comet, dwarf planet, or small moon. Honestly, would anyone think of looking inside deimos or Ceres for your station?

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  • $\begingroup$ Well, now that the idea has been published.... :-) $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Sep 4 '17 at 7:11
  • $\begingroup$ :D enders game fans already knew that the bright spots on ceres were the formic forward base in our solar system! $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Sep 4 '17 at 10:35
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In orbit around a Jovian or Super Jovian world the strong magnetic field would hide a good deal of EM activity and the heat of such worlds would also mask a good deal of thermal leakage. If you're using reasonably secure point-to-point communications, like the classic "comms laser" then odds of detection are minimal, the question is what does such a station actually do? It's probably too far away most of the time to do you any good when it comes to defending a terrestrial world closer to the sun or any "jump zone" for inbound traffic coming to the system.

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