Category Archives: Science

Space Warfare: the present and future

As a science fiction author, I’ve got a particular interest in current and future space operations.  Since I also write Military Science Fiction, that interest is a bit more sharply defined.  So I’ll address a couple of points regarding combat in space, and then leave a couple other areas open for your interpretation.  The first area in question is, of course, whether there will be combat in space.  Next up, just what technologies are currently available and what the future might hold.  Then there’s the big question, what roles will humans play in all this.  Lastly, I’ll talk some of the common SF tropes and what technology we’d need to get there.

The question as to whether there will be combat in space is one which can cause a number of people to argue.  It seems odd to me that there is any argument at all.  Some of the oldest artifacts of human existence are weapons.  Inevitably, weapons are a key part of human technology… and that is because when someone wants what you have, and they’re not as moral or ethically driven as you, then they’ll resort to violence.  Resources are almost always the root of human differences, more food, more wealth, more power.  The easiest way to take and hold those resources is not through discussion, but through violence.  The easiest way to prevent such violence is to create weapons and defenses of your own.   There are various treaties against space warfare, but those treaties are only as binding as the governments and people’s will of the signatory nations.  To top that off, there are always extra-government organizations who are not only non-signatory, but often simply don’t care, or worse, would view unarmed vessels and stations as targets.  Terrorists, pirates, and corporations might easily see opportunities in violence in space.  To be disarmed is to invite such violence.

Current technologies for space combat are, whether people acknowledge them or not, already present.  The Chinese demonstrated their ability to kill a satellite in 2007, when they destroyed a weather satellite in low earth orbit.  The US has conducted its own missile launch of an SM-3 in 2008, which mirrored the result on a deorbiting satellite.   The Chinese kill resulted in serious space debris, some of which has required the movement of other satellites to avoid damage.    Futher extrapolations of this technology are apparent.  The American SM-3 is a missile designed to intercept ballistic missiles.  Further improvements of the technology could eventually see missiles of greater range and capabilities.  An example of this is how the Russians currently use retrofitted ballistic missiles as launch platforms for satillites.  Other technologies are the so-called ‘kill-sats.’   Kill-sats are satellites designed with weapons or to be weapons.  These platforms would have greater maneuverability and might come with weapons packages or be designed to ram or strike other satellites.  An extrapolation of current technology would be using older or obsolescent satellites to deliberately ram or damage newer ones, rather than deorbiting them.  These means of space combat could lead to Kessler Syndrome, which was proposed in 1978 by Donald Kessler, a scientist with NASA.  He projected that a series of collisions could cause a cascade effect.  Each object destroyed, be it station or satellite, would in turn, give off a cloud of further debris.  This would fill the Earth’s orbitals with a cloud of fast-moving projectiles which would make space operations extremely hazardous.  It is a sort of nuclear option, which would deny the use of space platforms to anyone.

Future technologies are varied.  Lasers, once thought to be fantasy, are more and more prevalent even in the civilian sector.  Lasers powerful enough to be used as weapons are options, though this has limits based on energy density of what can be packed into a space-going platform.  Laser weapons on the ground, used to fire into space are also an option, though thermal bloom within the atmosphere robs these weapons of some of their punch.   Drones, which will be discussed later, are already prevalent in ground and air combat, it is easy enough to project their use in space as technologies develop further.   One thing to note in all of this, is that space combat, at least in the near-term, is extremely lethal.  One solid hit virtually guarantees the destruction of a target.  Current space craft are the equivalent of the first powered aircraft:  lightly built, individually constructed, and designed for specific purposes.   To make matters more difficult, space is an inherently inhospitable place.  A pinhole in the pressure compartment of a manned space craft could potentially kill the entire crew.  Radiation, debris, and a host of other dangers make survival in space problematical even without adding in the threat of someone trying to kill you.  It could very well be that space combat becomes a matter of whoever gets the first strike is the victor… or a case of mutually assured destruction.  More advanced technologies can change this.  Especially in the areas of increased energy density: reliable fusion, super-capacitors, and a host of other ideas are steps in the right direction.  Larger, more robust space platforms would be more likely given increases in the ability to lift as would the creation of a legitimate space infrastructure.  Even more advanced technologies could entirely alter the paradigm; warp drives, energy shielding, the real science fiction aspects, would further evolve the nature of space combat.

What exactly are humanity’s roles in space combat.  At least at first, we have little direct role.  Current technology space suits are cumbersome, at best.  Fighting in a low gravity environment would be difficult in the extreme.  Drones and robots, currently seen in ground and air combat, are more likely, especially given the shift by NASA towards robotic exploration.  It could be something so simple as the ability to throw dirt over the enemy’s solar panels or as complex as weapons mounted aboard, but as exploration continues, and space becomes a frontier full of resources rather than the distant void which money funnels into, sabotage and combat are inevitable.  Humans first roles might be that of hacker or saboteur, as a means to destroy or disable enemy drones and robots.   Eventually, however, as humans get out there, the role of combat will shift.  Direct control of drones from nearby will allow higher bandwidth and greater control of operations.  From there, it is only a step to imagine that the human controlling the drones becomes the target, and therefore needs some means of protection.  Ships might set out with a dozen combat drones, which could function as combination weapons platform, missile and probe, and mounting their own internal weapons such as lasers or projectiles.  All of this would be controlled by a handful of crew.

The last area of discussion is the common SF tropes.  Shields, antigravity, force fields, ray guns, lasers, missiles… the list goes on and on.  Many of these are highly dependent upon the technologies, societal preferences, and the combat paradigms.  Various sub-genres of SF have their own favorites.  Generally the space fighter is very common.  Issues with that are numerous, to include the fact that a drone would be capable of sharper maneuvers and greater accelerations.  However, one could easily imagine a future where the common man is very uncomfortable with the thought of space-going death being controlled by a computer.  This might preclude the use of such drones by the major powers.  Furthermore, perhaps hacking has become so prevalent that drones are seen as too unreliable, and are relegated to the role of support ships.  The same goes for ship automation.  Powerful lasers might well become extremely prevalent as new energy sources become available.  Warp drives might allow missiles that can strike an enemy before they know you’ve fired it, or allow ships to execute maneuvers that would be impossible to otherwise accomplish.  Powerful, world destroying weapons such as singularities, quarkium, and molecular disruption device might one day make our current nuclear arsenal seem amusing by comparison.

That’s the broad overview of what I think about combat in space.  Next week I’ll go more into depth on some of the topics and introduce some complications.  If I get time, I’d like to run through a hypothetical scenario, or war-game on a couple of these topics, mostly as illustration.  As always, I’d love to hear people’s input.

Eagles and Jet Engines

The SpaceX Dragon docking with the ISS.  Photo courtesy of space.com
The SpaceX Dragon docking with the ISS. Photo courtesy of space.com

I distinctly remember when two NASA astronauts visited my elementary school. They showed off bits and pieces of space technology, talked about how bright a future we’d have (where all of us would be afforded the opportunity to go to space) and generally made a lot of kids really excited.

Like some other things, the space part has not come to pass. Indeed, the US really doesn’t have a space program right now. We don’t even have a launch platform for people. NASA has to rely upon Russia (you know, the former USSR, who has a 10% launch failure on their Proton rocket) for cargo and personnel transport to the International Space Station. It’s fallen to private entrepreneurs to lead the way, such as Branson’s Space Ship Two which looks to be narrowing in on the space tourism gig.

As a SF author, I’ve something of a confession to make. If I could get out there and do this stuff, I would. I’d drop writing in a heartbeat, and take living that life. I’m certain there’s a lot of others who both read and write SF who feel the same. Clearly, some nerds with a lot of money have decided to stop waiting on someone else to make it happen and do it themselves. Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo and Elon Musk’s Dragon are two of the better known examples.

So, the question I’m asking… why now? Why has NASA steadily stepped back and why as the federal government essentially stepped out of the space business? Oh, there’s lots of talk about drones and robots, and missions such as the Spirit and Opportunity are great, but what about people?

And why are the private companies (albeit sometimes with trivial subsidies or grants), the ones who are doing the heavy lifting? I think a big portion of it has to do with how drastic the consequences of failure have become in America, and more specifically American politics. Americans, as a whole, have become increasingly risk averse, especially at government levels. A politician who backs a financial (or life-ending) failure will see his career destroyed. A bureaucrat who does the same will have similar consequences. Corporations, such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin, are by necessity, risk adverse. They don’t want the market to change, they want things stable, they’re on top of the market, innovation could jeopardize all of their ongoing profits. There’s a saying that I’ve always liked: Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines.

Entrepreneurs are different. They make their money through innovation, through start ups. They aren’t afraid to fail, and they know how to pick up the pieces afterwards and move on. We’re in a unique position in history right now where money, correctly applied, will allow a private sector individual to leverage a place in the space industry. These people run the risks of the eagles, they’ve put their money and, in some cases, their lives, on the line for their dreams. And that’s something I respect. I think companies such as Musk’s SpaceX and Branson’s Virgin Galactic are keeping space alive and hopefully soon they’ll be expanding the frontiers.

That’s the important part. Keeping us out there and then pushing for greater expansion is essential. Somewhere, right now, I’m certain someone is telling a bunch of kids that they’ll own space when they grow up… it’d be a shame if they were lying to them.

It’s SCIENCE!

ImageI still remember the time I first got in an argument with a teacher. It was in a science class in middle school and the teacher was explaining how some simple physics would work in some rockets we were making (2 liter coke bottles with water and compressed air). Things went pretty well in the class until I asked a question about why the water worked better than just the air.

I know now that water has higher mass, that the compressed air pushed the water out and imparted a greater initial thrust. That’s not the answer the teacher gave me, that’s one I figured out later on. My teacher just said ‘because it works.’

My response, in typical twelve-year-old fashion, could have been more tactful. I said, “That means you don’t know.” Cornering your teacher with the fact that they don’t understand how something works is not a way to endear them to you.

What I didn’t really grasp then (and the teacher, who had a teaching degree rather than a physics or engineering degree, didn’t get either), is that science is about asking those questions. Knowing how things work is the key to science… and something our education system does its best to program out of students at a young age. I don’t have a degree in teaching, but it seems to me that telling someone to read the text book is not a way to encourage kids to ask questions. Nor is, oddly enough, having them take rote tests designed to ‘check on learning.’

Teaching science, as in teaching most things, requires interaction and participation. I’ve had a few teachers who understood this, but only one in High School who taught science. My chemistry teacher was so good at the time that I retook her class as a senior as an AP class, both for the college credit and to do some of the crazy experiments she’d put together. Creating methane bubbles in a classroom and lighting them on fire might not seem like an educational process. Doing that while discussing the properties of soap films and the exothermic reaction of methane and oxygen both gets the students to pay attention and to actually think a little bit. This was a teacher who wasn’t afraid to admit that sometimes she didn’t have the answer… but that we could work on it.

The scientific method, trial and error, these things are essential to learning and developing science. That’s something that we, especially as fans of Science Fiction, should always remember.