gearing up for war in outer space

January 16, 2009

Humans are territorial creatures. The only reason why we seem to share outer space with each other is because we can’t put up border crossings and have them stay in the same place. But when we reach out to the Moon and to Mars, we’re going to have land that we can physically guard and patrol. Conflicts are imminent. The age of real space wars is slowly creeping up on us and when it arrives, few will be surprised. After all, we’re used to war and on our own home world, we’ve built vast, devastating arsenals. What going to be a real shocker though, is that many of our modern weapons will be obsolete in the vacuum of space and we’ll need to think of new and very different ways to kill each other.

spacecraft liftoff

Last year, when China and the U.S. shot down a pair of orbiting satellites in an international tit for tat saber rattling exercise, they had to use missiles with kinetic kill vehicles. That’s military speak for a missile that uses sheer momentum to destroy a target rather than high explosives in its warhead. On Earth, we can rely on explosive charges and the energy of their shockwaves to take out targets. But shockwaves rely on pressure to do their damage and without enough gases in space to move around, explosions are only as powerful as their initial burst. So when missiles with explosive charges hit a satellite, they can damage it but not necessarily bring it down. High speed impacts that transfer nothing but raw, kinetic energy and don’t need a hand from a pressure wave to do their job, are much more effective and guarantee that a good shot will obliterate your target.

When the first generation of space destroyers takes off, expect them to be armed with kinetic missiles and electromagnetic pulses rather than explosive warheads or lasers which tend to be the standard fare for warships in the sci-fi world. Even the mighty thermonuclear warheads of our nightmares would only be effective weapons on a surface of a celestial object. Ok, you may be asking yourself, nukes need pressure waves to propagate their energy but what’s what’s so bad about lasers? One word: diffusion. Lasers are concentrated beams of light and they tend to diffuse over very long distances. They would do a good job in guidance and targeting systems but a long rage laser beam would diffuse before imparting serious damage to its target.

Now, if there was a multi-petawatt beam that could slice into a spacecraft about six miles away, there might be real use for lasers on a cosmic battlefield. Particle and electromagnetic beams suffer from the same problem as lasers but for a different reason. The mutual repulsive force of the charged high energy particles that create the beam, would force it to keep expanding as it propagates. Like a laser, it would need either extremely high starting energies or a powerful magnetic field to counter the repulsive force for the nanoseconds the beam would take to get to its target and impart its charge. Whoever figures out a reliable technology for making lasers or particle beams effective would enjoy a major advantage on the battlefield. Both would need just an infinitesimal fraction of a second to reach the enemy and do their damage.

And all that brings us to the big question. What would the first space warships look like? Would they be the giant, imposing aircraft carrier style monsters we know and love? Well, not at first. When wars in space are fought so far away, they require a mobile base to coordinate an attack, repair damaged craft and house hundreds of pilots, then we’ll see immense space station-like ships which carry dozens of fighters that do much of the actual shooting and killing. The space stations would house the most powerful weapons intended for surface bombardment or taking out other stations and their defenders. The fighters themselves would be relatively large craft, something on the scale of a B2 bomber and either autonomous or remote controlled. Which is more practical or effective will depend on how good AI technology gets and the type of mission the fighter is supposed to execute. It might even be a hybrid, able to expand to accommodate human pilots and fight on its own. I’d use the term “pilot agnostic.”

It might seem depressing to think about how human conflicts will expand into space and we’ll be committing countless billions of dollars to creating space faring tools of malice. Space was supposed to be a place where humans go to avoid war and exploring other worlds, idealized by many to be the glue that will bring humanity together into a single collective. But the reality of the situation is that there will always be someone with too much power and appetite for war and destruction setting up military bases anywhere they could be set up and no regulation, no nice document singed by diplomats as a novelty or a serious pledge with an enforcing body to back it up, will stop this person. As long as we have nations, nationalism and people who’s primary concern in life is to determine what’s theirs and what should be theirs, we will always have the threat of war looming over our heads.

Space is the final frontier in many ways. It’s the place to put our science to the test and discover things we’ve never dreamed of. It’s the place to start anew. It’s the place which can satisfy our urge to explore and keep exploring. But it’s also a place where we’ll have new disputes and new problems that will often descend into violent conflict. We should be ready.

[ illustration by Roy McLeish ]

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  • Pete

    Awesome piece, thanks.

  • jypson

    I think you’ve nailed it, EMP and KKV combo would really be the only way to go. Any space craft would require the ability to withstand space debris via energy shield or multi directional deflector array. EMP to take out power to all systems and KKV to rupture the hull and violently depressurize the vessel.

  • Tellus

    Just a quick note:

    Lasers (or more correctly LASERs) are electromagnetic beams. This doesn’t change your point above in any way, it’s just a minor niggle about phrasing. :)