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How Good Is The Science Behind Your Favorite Space Battles?

Giant green lasers, endlessly boosting starships, fantastically visual explosions…just how strong is the F=m*a with science fiction space battles? Not very accurate, they are.

Joe Hanson of PBS‘s It’s Okay To Be Smart is back with a new video dissecting the science of space battles. As you might expect, the dogfights of Star Wars and other sci-fi staples take a bit of liberty with inertia, lasers, and explosions. Watch below:

What’s really interesting to me is the point about Star Wars being influenced by early films of aerial dogfighting. And by being perhaps the biggest sci-fi series of all time, the films therefore determined the style of all the space battle scenes to follow it. Audiences wanted the action and drama of Star Wars-style battles, not Newton-accurate drifting around firing invisible lasers. It stands to reason that if another, more accurate depiction of space battling made it as big as Star Wars, the whole landscape of what the space opera looked like today would be radically different, from Battlestar Galactica to Mass Effect.

Oh, and I don’t care if it’s accurate, I do NOT want to see “Stormtrooper Hot Pockets” cooked by intense neutron bombardment. Gross.

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  1. DaedalusZM says:

    Larry Niven writes good, “hard” scifi. He cheats with thrusters (allows for atmospheric and casual flying), but normally uses nuclear/relativistic propulsion for long trips. Ships have to fire engines in opposite direction to slow down

  2. Gyroscopes only reorient their spin in relation to the Earth’s gravitational field. Spinning on a horizontal plane is a lot more economical than spinning on a vertical plane.Alastair Reynold’s books have some good, accurate sci-fi combat.There is some accurate Newtonian physics in the Xbox360 indie game 0g Y3030, also the PC game Elite Dangerous tries pretty hard to be accurate, but makes some concessions in the interests of gameplay. Star Citizen is another PC game that seems to be making an effort toward realistic space combat, perhaps not as much as Elite, but some effort is better than none.

    • Mark says:

      Don’t want to be a nattering pitb, but gyroscopes allow reorienting in relation to their spin.  They could careless about the “earth’s gravitational fields” which is precisely what makes them useful.

      Specifically, angular momentum *must* be conserved in any closed system.

      If the gyroscope is whirling away at a high rate (and the starship isn’t), then you can make the starship rotate by grabbing the axle of the gyro and giving it a good yank.

      Even easier is to use the same motor that was used to spinup the gyro to either spin it up more or slow it down some.  The ship will begin to spin in an equal and opposite direction in order to conserve the total angular momentum.  To stop the ship’s spin, just put the angular momentum back into the gyro.

      If you have three gyros with their axis oriented in three orthogonal directions, you can spin the ship in any direction you wish.  Completely independent of Earth’s gravity field.

      • That’s brilliant, like a fly wheel for ship rotation. The system could run off electricity, removing the need for propellant. I was just aware of Gyroscopes being used for self-righting and vertical orientation mechanisms.  I stand corrected. I have learned something, thank you.

  3. Jessica Lucens says:

    See David Weber’s “Honor Harrington” series for what seems to be somewhat more realistic depictions of space battles.

    • Dan Gilbert says:

      Yeah, the less than subtle whacks over the head you periodically get from the politic-stick get annoying though. You’re not a fan of Left wing politics Weber- we get it, now can you go finish yourself off in the closet thinking about Ayn Rand so we can get on and see the space aliens?..

  4. Jimmy Williams says:

    The Lost Fleet book series by Jack Campbell does a really good job of showing combat in space using real science.  The battles last for hours if not days due to the huge distances in a solar system.  Planning for time for breaking to slow down and slingshotting around a planet.  The weapons are missiles, lasers and mass drivers.