I am about to program space exploration simulation game in the future, but I need to consider many factors. I would like to be as much realistic as possible, but keeping the game playable as well and also attractive.

I think that space battles are not very probable, but I also think that without them, game will loose attractiveness for many potential players.

So, I need to have a realistic point of view, to decide what to change and what ignore.

I have created this scenario: As space explorers people have found Earth-like planet in habitable zone and started to colonize it. There where no evidence of advanced civilization until one day they come to our settlement and say: this planet was our for many decades and you have attacked our territory.

All diplomatic ways failed (they wanted to set up their own colony there) and they started war against people.

How this war/battles/strategy/weapons/battleships/fighters should look like? But in realistic way? With technologies we know/have or are reachable in close future lets say in 10-20 years.

I am really looking forward to your answers/comments/links, and I hope my question doesn't break any community rules. :)

EDIT: Thank you all for answers, you give me lot of inspiration and ideas for brainstorming. I really feel that it helped me to get better understood of complexity of space conflicts. Despite of the question was marked as opinion-based, it helped me and may help other as well.

  • 8
    $\begingroup$ Please start with reading Project Rho. Many questions are already answered there. $\endgroup$ – Deer Hunter Aug 11 '14 at 13:07
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I found the physics of the space battle in Scott Westerfeld's The Risen Empire sci-fi book very plausible. It shows in great detail a combat between two warships approaching each other at something like 0.1c, and the various weapons and technologies that are effective for combat in that kind of context. It has FTL communication but no FTL travel, so it assumes drones moving at sizeable fractions of lightspeed can communicate with each other, but within that assumption the space battle is pretty solid and very interesting. $\endgroup$ – AlexC Aug 11 '14 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ FTL communication or travel? I assume no, but if yes, then the details of alternative physics are going to be critical. $\endgroup$ – hyde Aug 11 '14 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ Another thing is available thrust, and propulsion technology, and energy available. Realistic propulsion ideas. Without concrete details all answers are going to be very speculative, a small change in technology could change everything. $\endgroup$ – hyde Aug 11 '14 at 19:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ As you are writing a game, you are in a good position to find out - write a movement system close to reality (Newtonian physics, fuel mass etc) and see how flight looks like. add weapons with close to realistic behavior and try out what tactics work. repeat. $\endgroup$ – mart Aug 18 '14 at 12:55

I would like to firstly echo the suggestion to read Project Rho. Throughout the entire site, there is a tremendous amount of hard science and it is all deeply entertaining.


In short, a space war would look more like the Cold War than any other war we've known. With nuclear ICBMs, we effectively established that our capacity for destruction vastly exceeds our ability to evade or shield against attacks. Because of that, we wind up in a stalemate, where both sides are perpetually armed but refuse to attack. The role for a "conventional" military has remained strong more-or-less due to developed nations taking action in developing nations. In space, this seems much less likely. Could there even be a developing nation in space? We're looking a concept of warfare that is much colder than anything we've known.

Some predictions and extrapolations are certainly still obvious. Today, we have nuclear subs as a "net" which keep weapons on alert. For a society that spans the solar system, you could realistically maintain a similar net. Such a net could consist of probes in free orbit with either people or computers capable of making a decision to fire, and where to fire.

To break down the overall strategies of the weapons, you could go several routes:

  • Something that is too fast to detect
  • Something that is too large to divert
  • "Peaceful" space technologies which are inherently dual-use

Planetary colonies are uniquely unmovable. Their future location can be calculated exactly as far as we care, so if an asteroid is diverted toward one, it's lights out for that colony unless they have similar technology. This presents a logical decision matrix, where if one society has vastly larger rockets, then they can win at war by imparting more momentum to a rock than the other society can (as a means of diversion). However, asteroids are far away, and even a small course correction could avoid impact, so the advantage would only be present if one side of the conflict had much better technology. So this is only relevant for a highly asymmetrical war.

Something too fast to detect looks much more deadly. Consider something in-between a linear particle accelerator and a Gauss gun. With a small enough payload, it's conceivable to launch it at a significant fraction of the speed of light. This becomes a simple kinetic energy weapon, and depending on how fast it's traveling, it could be virtually impossible to detect in advance.

Given this thinking, war would look more like a chain reaction - completely preplanned. Similar to the historical Cold War, it comes down to a probability matrix where you have x probability of winning if you fire first, and y probability of winning if the other side fires first. In some particularly intense situations, it's possible that firing first gives your best chance of survival. But this situation has a kind of super-rational game theory, where the logic of your opponent feeds back onto your own logic.

In all situations, pre-planning basically wins. If one side implements a plan to annihilate the other side, there is no hope. The only other option is if the defenders build infrastructure in lockstep with the aggressors, which seems unlikely. The probability of annihilation is most likely to be either 100% / 0% or 100% / 100%.

The most likely space war story would be bogged down in heavy political logic, and possibly a great deal of espionage. For interstellar warfare, the most effective deterrent might be sending a message back to your home system. Throw in some game theory as well. For instance, conceal the time that the first message was sent, and use this to force their hand into a peace negotiation.

|improve this answer|||||
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Indeed, independently originated and/or evolved interstellar civilizations seem unlikely to have similar capacity when they encounter each other. Being a mere 1000 years ahead in development would be decisive, at least as we humans historically understand development. What about electronic warfare? Maybe the physical smashing of satellites isn't very useful even today already. But hacking them, misinforming them, disturbing them, spying on them. And biological warfare, infecting the enemy, enslaving them, mutating them. Or most efficiently: to cooperate with them for mutual benefit! $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Aug 11 '14 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ I surely will look at project rho, it looks very interesting to me. Thank you for lot of ideas and possible scenarios :) $\endgroup$ – Luckylooke Aug 13 '14 at 19:44
  • $\begingroup$ Penn & Teller's BS series included a program on "world peace" which concluded that peace arises when the stronger nation can profit more from commerce than conquest. Conquest may allow the stronger nation to capture the present value of the weaker nation, minus the damage the weaker nation might inflict, but commerce may allow the stronger nation to net a significant fraction of the future value of the weaker nation's production. I would think a similar situation could arise in space. The biggest issue would be whether the weaker entity's production would have value for the stronger one. $\endgroup$ – supercat Dec 26 '14 at 22:49

There are two answers, and they depend upon available ΔV (delta-V).

Realistically, there are only 3 weapons worth mention: Lasers, Missiles, and Particle Accelerator Weaponss (PAW).

Weapon ranges are going to be measured in megameters (1e6 meters) for missiles, and maybe a dozen kilometers (around 1e4 meters) for lasers and PAWs.

Low ΔV

If available ΔV is low, then it's simply a slow drift together, and he whose fire control software and hardware works best wins. You'll never see the beams of the lasers or PAWs, only the effects of a hit. The battle will be a single pass. There may be some adjustment of formation, but its not going to be a lot. Missiles will be delivering nukes and will probably be used for generating detonation laser events instead of direct impact. (The available delta-V isn't enough to prevent the missile from being lasered before impact.)

High ΔV

If available ΔV is high (several G-hours), and the time is present to use them, everything has to be automated. A single pass, using kinetic kill missiles at high relative velocity. You send the missiles ahead, and use your lasers and PAWs for automated point defense. The goal of the point defense fire is to prevent the missiles from terminal guidance, not to detonate them, and secondarily, to disable the backup warheads. The missiles are armed with nukes, but that's only a backup plan; the primary goal is to actually impact, for the kinetic impact is huge. Maneuver is to avoid missile impact. The initial commit to battle is a sudden burst of missiles towards the enemy. And then, the missiles start to die. Next, the missiles or fragments impact, and massive crunches happen.

So, in either case, two formations approach each other, fly a single pass, and hope it's decisive. The next "pass" is going to be a way off in time... more like a second whole battle than a continuation of the first.

Silent, and sudden flowers of death. And a significant wait until battle ranges.


Onboard, in either case... program the computers, put on your vacuum suits, hit "commit", and then hide in the solar storm shelter, and wait. If there's still a ship after the battle pass, emerge, and assess the damage. Repair what you can. Find out which other ships survived, and match to grab survivors to the limits of your own life support systems.


The lucky ones die from near instant vaporizations.

The slightly less lucky die from shrapnel.

The least lucky are the guys who can't signal another ship, and fell off-ship during an impact event, and have no ship air, and realize that they are going to run out of suit air... and suffocate, slowly; floating there, waiting for death, praying for rescue, all alone in the dark...

Most people aboard ship will either live or die in groups - either the shelter took the hit, or it didn't. Some minor bangs and bruises in those that survived. The partials happen when the shelter is lasered open but not squarely hit... anyone in the wrong area is cooked alive near instantly; the rest see the hit. Fragments of molten metal floating in the remainder of the compartment cause minor holes and burns in the others. And, unless their radios are on, you hear nothing... despite their screams and sobs.

If detonation lasers happen, you can add radiation burns to those whose shelters were compromised. If the ship's point defense was overwhelmed, you're at ground zero of a nuclear flare... no cloud, just a bright light and vaporizing metal, plastic, and flesh. Chunks of ship disappear, and the survivors pick up lots of rads.


This isn't to say the ships are not maneuvering... they are. They are rotating to keep the weapons in arc, and spinning on the long axis to minimize laser and PA loiter times on any one spot. Changing facing is a series of pulses from a variety of RCS thrusters, timed to fire only when in the right position ... lots of small sudden jolts, not one smooth acceleration... Kind of a "throw you sideways" alarm clock effect. And when RCS engines get killed, it becomes an uneven tattoo.

|improve this answer|||||
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, lot of ideas you give me :) I am now curious what impact can do nuclear weapon in space, because there is no pressure wave, but can be packed in special case which can be thrown into millions small particles accelerated by explosion. So that could be the impact :) $\endgroup$ – Luckylooke Aug 13 '14 at 19:41
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The predictions I've read are that the effects in space are MUCH reduced. Given that ships with metal hulls are essentially faraday cages, the EMP is mostly going to be on the sensors and missile racks. Given that there's no shock wave, most of the force profile is lost. Which leaves the direct EM radiation and the propulsive ability - which due to temperatures, anything propelled effectively is also likely to be too close to survive. The direct EM can cause localized melting if close enough, but remember the square function dropoff of delivered energy... $\endgroup$ – aramis Aug 13 '14 at 20:16

Over Solar System distances and high velocities, more than cometary speeds, smart kinetics and "smart mines" are interesting.

You obviously have to have a way to look for smart mines and munitions deployed in massive numbers and ad-hoc networked as well as silent, all the way down to nano-bots and destructive replicators. In other words, new systems are approached very slowly with years of close examination and test probes.

Among kinetic weapons perhaps the most interesting as the triple gun (or more). This is a fairly massive projectile launched by rail gun intended to intercept a distant target, light minutes or light hours away. The launch package is itself a smaller rail gun that can fire a smart missile as it nears the target zone and has updated information on the target. The smart missile can have high acceleration sub-munitions or be a third smaller rail gun that fires a smart high acceleration missile into an "expectation area" that brings the missile with range and speed of the target.

All this is to manage the time lag to the target and the target's high acceleration and unpredictability. We think of these as very expensive expendables, but consider the current state of 3D printers and maybe they are not unreasonable. The time and information lag dictates new strategies and an examination of old strategies from the days of sailing ships.

Many pre-planned and compiled scenarios are crucial to avoid any delays in decision making.

|improve this answer|||||

Fast projectiles would be effective space weapons today. For sure, some such weapons are already prepared for use against military satellites if a new world war broke out today.

I must say that your combination of colonizing a planet, and "10-20 years", do not work together. Even sending four humans for a short visit to Mars within 20 years is optimistic. It takes tens of thousands of years to travel even to the nearest star, and even that optimistically assume that several problems would be solved within centuries (like an energy source which lasts for tens of thousands of years, communication system and not least a completely new kind of propulsion system). Today we cannot start sending even a tiny probe to another star. Also aliens claiming the same planet "since decades" is a bit silly. They should've been around many millions of years, some percentage of the age of the galaxy which is ten billion years.

|improve this answer|||||
  • $\begingroup$ "colonizing a planet, and "10-20 years", do not work together" OK, maybe I have missed that point, but we can make giant leap in quantum computers and all technologies will burst :D $\endgroup$ – Luckylooke Aug 13 '14 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ Please could you better guess the time of interstellar traveling age? $\endgroup$ – Luckylooke Aug 13 '14 at 19:48
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Luckylooke here are two links to sets of serious video lectures about interstellar travel which might inspire you icarusinterstellar.org/category/conferences and starshipcentury.com/blog/videos-of-starship-century-symposium Today interstellar travel time is never! At least if one has the ambition to have anything but dust to arrive. Propulsion, energy, communication, radiation, collisions are some of the unsolved problems. Even for a minimum fly by probe. Human survival would be extremely much more difficult. One would have to copy and bring Earth's biosphere along. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Aug 13 '14 at 20:43

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.