Space is a vacuum. It is a medium where there is virtually no atmosphere or gravity, except around celestial objects, and virtually no weather, except in the vicinity of stars. Film and television are visual mediums where there is a need to make action sequences, such as space battles, look exciting. As a result, these two mediums are incompatible when the realities of each collide.
These latest collisions are very much in evidence with the return of Star Trek to the small screen in Star Trek: Discovery on TV and Slitherine’s release of their Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock video game. With these events now is a good time to revisit a question that competing fandoms have debated, argued, and fought over for years: what would happen in an engagement between the re-imagined Galactica and the Enterprise-D of Star Trek: The Next Generation?
The Strange World of Space Physics
Decades of visual media have conditioned us to imagine what space battles would be like. Either the starships are manoeuvring at close range like World War I era airplanes or fighting Napoleonic-era naval engagements. These preconceptions are based on the rules of terrestrial combat. Once you leave the planet with its atmosphere, gravity, and weather phenomena behind, these mostly disappear. Vacuum changes all the rules.
With gravity and an atmosphere to transfer their heat and blast effects, explosions are very destructive. Once you’re in space, most of this ends. Even a nuclear weapon loses 90% of its destructive force in a vacuum – it is reduced to a blinding flash of light and radioactive particles far more likely to poison the crew than damage their ship.
For any kind of explosive warhead to do damage they would have to make contact and penetrate the ship. They and kinetic energy weapons – pure projectiles – would have to accurately aimed and/or used in large numbers to be effective. These requirements create their own severe difficulties in space.
Added to these difficulties are velocity and distance. With manned interstellar spaceships needing to travel at thousands of kilometres per second to travel at a reasonable speed inside a solar system, this leaves ships needing to engage at tens of thousands of kilometres distance just to avoid accidental collisions. This in turn brings in the problems of relativistic velocities of the ships themselves, the weapons they use, the countermeasures they deploy and the limitations of their detection, tracking, and targeting systems.
As ships approach the speed of light, time passes slower for their crews, reducing their window to react to any changes in battle. This affects the ability to perform even basic manoeuvres, to say nothing of deploying weapons and countermeasures, detecting, tracking, and targeting hostile ships, coordinating actions with other allied ships in a squadron or flotilla, let alone an entire fleet.
Directed energy weapons are less affected by relativistic velocities. However, aiming and the need to dissipate the heat generated by the weapons operation would be difficult to overcome. Even a beam or pulse travelling at the speed of light would need accurate targeting when used over distances approaching interplanetary ranges. No matter what type of weapon is used, each shot would have to be deflection shot, aiming for where the target will be instead of where it is perceived to be.
Active vs. Passive Defence
The Galactica is a warship with an active defence system designed to limit damage by avoiding hits. The Enterprise-D is an exploration ship with a passive defence system designed to mitigate damage after being hit. Galactica bristles with point defence guns and has multi-layered armour several metres thick over vital areas. The Enterprise-D has deflector shields which absorb energy weapons impacts and distort space to deflect physical weapons.
Both systems have drawbacks. Deflector shields have large energy requirements which in turn create enough heat to bake the crew if it is not dissipated. Meanwhile, guns can be damaged, malfunction, and run out of ammunition. Armour can absorb prodigious damage, but, once the battle ends, it needs to be repaired or replaced.
The Universe of Battle
To be able to tell their stories, both the Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek franchises disregard most of these complications and inconvenient physics. In Star Trek it is a given that ships can detect each other in real-time regardless of distance, maneuver like aircraft and not bake their crews when phasers are fired or shields generated. In Battlestar Galactica, kinetic rounds travel fast enough to hit targets tens of thousands of kilometres away just seconds after being fired. The moment we end the facade of ignoring actual physics in space combat, the picture becomes very different from what we’ve been shown.
The very nature of each ship dictates different tactics. The Enterprise-D is an exploration vessel with families aboard. It is designed to hold off or disrupt an attack long enough to get away or receive help. Its tactical goal is a quick victory or speedy escape. It is at its best when engaging at long range, and is not built to take punishment in an extended battle.
As a capital warship, the Galactica is designed to absorb damage while meting it out. Its principle tactics would involve making the space around it very hazardous to penetrate while forcing the enemy to come to it. Fighters would harass and distract enemy capital ships while the Galactica perfects its firing solutions and destroys its targets using main guns and nukes. The longer the battle and the closer the enemy comes, the greater the Galactica’s advantage.
And while the Enterprise-D’s preferred strategy is a long-range engagement, the results would be indecisive at best. For it to stand off and engage the Galactica at 300,000 km – the range at which it can bring both photon torpedoes and phasers to bear – neither ship could do much damage. Projectile weapons like missiles, photon torpedoes, and kinetic rounds would take so long to reach their target they could be decoyed, eluded or destroyed with ease. While the Enterprise’s phasers could theoretically hit the Galactica, if not repelling fighter attacks, the beams would take a full second to arrive – the Enterprise could never fire at where the Galactica is, only where it might be one second later. Even then, Galactica’s point defence guns could disrupt phaser contact with the hull to such an extent that the armour takes little damage. Foe either ships to defeat the either, they need to be much closer.
A point-blank battle would be near-suicidal for both ships. Even at slower velocities measured in hundreds of kilometres per second, neither ship could manoeuver without risking collision. This makes an engagement at medium range far more likely. Closing distance to twenty thousand kilometres or so means it would begin to resemble a Napoleonic era naval battle, with each ship firing broadsides at a target only visible as a speck of light. As large manoeuvers would be difficult to execute, the ships would be reduced to using thrusters to alter speed and prevent impacts.
Theoretically, the purpose-built warship has the advantage, making it a race to see what runs out first: physical weapons or energy weapons and shields. Given all of the difficulties, it’s likely neither side could win before running out of ammunition. The question in the end is not which ship would win, but why either would waste the resources and risk damage in a battle in open space at all.
Editors Note: This story was written with the help of John-Allen Price
Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out more by Robert B. Marks such as Creating Dread: The Design Decisions Behind Horror Games and How Diablo Became an Instant Classic!
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