There Ain’t No Stealth in Space..
January 18, 2010 3 Comments
Wargames like GDW’s STAR CRUISER describe interplanetary combat as being like hide and go seek with bazookas. Stealthy ships are tiny needles hidden in the huge haystack of deep space. The first ship that detects its opponent wins by vaporizing said opponent with a nuclear warhead. Turning on active sensors is tantamount to suicide. It is like one of the bazooka-packing seekers clicking on a flashlight: all your enemies instantly see and shoot you before you get a good look. You’d best have all your sensors and weapons far from your ship on expendable remote drones.
Well, that turns out not to be the case.
The “bazooka” part is accurate, but not the “hiding” part. If the spacecraft are torchships, their thrust power is several terawatts. This means the exhaust is so intense that it could be detected from Alpha Centauri. By a passive sensor.
The Space Shuttle’s much weaker main engines could be detected past the orbit of Pluto. The Space Shuttle’s manoeuvering thrusters could be seen as far as the asteroid belt. And even a puny ship using ion drive to thrust at a measly 1/1000 of a g could be spotted at one astronomical unit.
This is with current off-the-shelf technology. Presumably future technology would be better.
Now I know you do not want to accept the fact that stealth in space is all but impossible. This I know from experience (Every day I have new email from somebody who thinks they’ve figured out a way to do it. So far all of them have had fatal flaws.). The only thing that upsets budding SF writers more is Albert Einstein denying them their faster than light starships. But don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger. The good folk on the usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.science went through all the arguments but it all came to naught.
Not that that’s gonna stop you from trying.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any thread that begins by pointing out why stealth in space is impossible will rapidly turn into a thread focusing on schemes whereby stealth in space might be achieved.
If you want to really argue on this topic, I’d advise you to cut out the middle man and go directly to rec.arts.sf.science and lay your case out before the experts. You might also want to review the section on Respecting Science.
Most of the arguments on thermo and space detection run through a predictable course of responses:
1) “Space is dark. You’re nuts!”
2) “OK, there’s no horizon, but the signatures can’t be that bright?”
3) “OK, the drive is that bright, but what if it’s off?”
4) “But it’s not possible to scan the entire sky quickly!”
5) “OK, so the reactors are that bright, what if you direct them somewhere else…”
6) “What if I build a sunshade?”
7) “OK, so if I can’t avoid being detected by thermal output, I’ll make decoys…”
8) “Arrgh. You guys suck all the fun out of life! It’s a GAME, dammit!”
“Well FINE!!”, you say, “I’ll turn off the engines and run silent like a submarine in a World War II movie. I’ll be invisible.” Unfortunately that won’t work either. The life support for your crew emits enough heat to be detected at an exceedingly long range. The 285 Kelvin habitat module will stand out like a search-light against the three Kelvin background of outer space.
And if you are hoping to lose your tiny heat signature in the vastness of the sky, I’ve got some bad news for you. Current astronomical instruments can do a complete sky survey in about four hours, or less.