We put the USS Enterprise, Imperial Class Star Destroyer, and other ships to the ultimate combat test.
Sci-fi movies, television, and video games often use naval conflicts and sometimes submarine skirmishes as inspiration for epic space battles. These include massive capital ships passing dangerously close to each other while blasting away. However, a real theoretical space battle would be considerably different from anything we’ve seen on screen due to the physics of outer space.
What Real Space Battles Would Look Like
First, the battle would be completely silent except for the debris that batters against the ships. Second, battles likely rely more heavily on projectiles and energy weapons than torpedoes, since explosives wouldn’t work very well in space.
Additionally, unlike on Earth, projectiles in space have infinite range. Without gravity, an atmosphere, or physical obstructions, a bullet will travel at the same speed and direction indefinitely until it hits something.
Summed up in a speech given to cadets in the popular video game, Mass Effect, if a missile misses a ship, it will hit the planet behind that ship. If there is no planet, that missile will keep going until it hits something. It could take thousands of years, but that missile will eventually ruin someone’s day if it impacts an unsuspecting ship or an inhabited planet, making Sir Isaac Newton “the deadliest son of a bitch in space.”
Lasers may be especially devastating, because, with no atmosphere, heat is incredibly difficult to get rid of. Today’s high-powered military lasers would have an effective range of over 10,000 km (the distance between New York City and Tahiti) in outer space according to science blogger Matter Beam. A laser could also melt through about an inch of steel plating in a matter of seconds from over 1,000 km away (roughly the distance from New York City to Indianapolis).
Therefore, the spaceship with the best long-range guidance and targeting systems will have a clear advantage over the others. Meanwhile, ships that come under attack may never see it coming. They will likely be torn apart and melted with a crew cooked inside before anyone knew what was going on, much less responded.
With all that said, let’s take a look at some of the most iconic battleships in science fiction to see which design would fare best in a realistic space battle.
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USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D (Star Trek: The Next Generation)
With only a handful of exceptions, such as the USS Defiant (Deep Space Nine) and the Sovereign class of starships, the United Federation of Planets – with Earth at its core – does not build warships. Instead, it outfits its exploration vessels with high-tech weapons and shields in the hopes that they will be enough to survive most conflicts. That mentality is clearly reflected in the famous Enterprise D from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
With clear nods to the original Enterprise design, the gigantic Galaxy class starship represented the best humanity had to offer, built to house and entertain entire civilian families, including scientists, children, and a bartender who moonlights as a life coach. At the show’s launch, the ship was crewed by over 1,000 officers, but it could transport up to 10,000 people if needed. The ship was capable of cruising at warp 6 with an emergency speed of warp 9.6. Weapons originally included forward and aft photon torpedo launchers, along with 12 enhanced phaser arrays that could fire in a 360-degree arc; later Galaxy designs increased the phaser array count.
However, even with all that technology, the Enterprise D turned out to be ill-equipped for most combat scenarios. Oftentimes, the ship was saved through the crew’s quick thinking and resourcefulness, or because a cosmic event intervened. The ship’s luck eventually ran out when it was completely destroyed in Star Trek Generations.
The relatively pacifistic ship design remained a constant problem throughout TNG’s seven-season run. Considering how the Galaxy class ship was outgunned by not only Borg cubes, but Dominion ships and the Federation’s own (and considerably smaller) Defiant, it’s a wonder that the Enterprise survived for as long as it did. Given this, the odds of it surviving a “real” space battle are extremely low.
Although its shields could protect it from most assaults, they’re only raised when a threat is detected. So, firing a high-speed missile or laser from outside sensor range would spell doom for the Enterprise, especially if it comes from an unexpected direction like behind, above or below the ship. The issue is compounded by the fact that the most sensitive areas of the ship are completely vulnerable.
For instance, the bridge is prominently placed atop the ship at the center of the saucer, which makes it look like a giant bullseye when viewed from above. Hitting the bridge directly could wipe out most if not all of the senior crew members, leaving the rest of the ship scrambling when the second attack hits.
The very badly situated warp nacelles are ideal targets, since they’re fully exposed and are attached to the ship using long protruding arms. The final target would be engineering, with the aim of causing a warp core breach. With so many failing systems, the heat from the assault might kill most of the surviving crew as they make for the escape pods. Whatever remains of the Enterprise afterward should be easy pickings.
Even if it managed to raise shields in time, the Enterprise would have almost no chance to respond to the threat. With unlimited range, a little bit of patience, and precise timing, a ship could theoretically fire a barrage, change positions, launch another, and so on. Or multiple ships could launch a simultaneous assault. Either way, the Enterprise would take hits from all directions, draining its shields until something managed to break through.
Imperial Class Star Destroyer (Star Wars)
The Empire loves building things big, and the Star Destroyer stands as a testament to its power. Inspired by naval warships, these behemoths are armed to the teeth with 60 heavy turbolasers, 60 ion cannons, six dual heavy turbolasers, two dual heavy ion cannons, three triple medium turbolasers, two quad heavy turbolasers, and ten tractor beams. Not to mention the dozens of TIE fighters, bombers, and other craft they carry inside.
But in space, bigger isn’t always better, since it makes the ship much easier to target from long range. Fortunately, Star Destroyers have powerful shields that are almost always on.
However, those shields have their own vulnerabilities, since Star Wars movies prove that small fighters can fly in and destroy the emitter – the large domes set atop a giant protruding tower that also houses an exposed bridge. They also happen to be right next to the communications array, making the command tower a prime target for fighters to focus on. So, it makes sense that it’s surrounded by turrets that could easily wipe out squadrons of fighters. But even with all that firepower, a Star Destroyer might not last much longer in a battle than the Enterprise.
Speed, energy, and mass are related, illustrated with the equation E=mc^2. Meaning that a pebble the size of a speck of dust can cause massive damage when traveling at 2,500 miles per hour. Scale that up to a dime or larger and the energy grows exponentially. Therefore, a weapon doesn’t have to be a fancy photon torpedo. Attach thrusters and guidance systems to a bunch of dense asteroids and you’ll have a formidable arsenal, especially if they’re equipped with hyperdrives.
As demonstrated in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a gigantic ship may be obliterated by ramming it at near light speeds. Actually, the movie deeply understates the results. Physicists have already given these theoretical weapons of mass destruction the acronym RKKV (Relativistic Kinetic Kill Vehicles), and their power may rival or surpass that of the Death Star.
Reacting to an object traveling at near light speed is practically impossible, since you would only see the light from where it used to be, if you could spot it at all. As stated, you don’t need a large projectile to make a big impact. On Because Science, Kyle Hill explains that a paperclip traveling at 99.99 percent the speed of light would be 67x more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The devastation from something the size of a football or starship would be almost unimaginable. Once this weapon hits, the energy released would tear a Star Destroyer apart at a subatomic level. It’s likely that humans don’t even possess the senses to perceive the kind of destruction RKKV weapons are capable of.
Even if all those turrets were somehow fast enough to respond to these super high-speed projectiles, blasting them wouldn’t stop them or slow them down. They’d just break apart, creating more projectiles that will hit the massive ship at near light speed. So, add Albert Einstein to the list of deadly galactic badasses.
Battlestar Galactica (Battlestar Galactica 2004)
Galactica was an obsolete ship, set to be decommissioned and used as a museum. Its aging systems often malfunction or break, and its fighters are woefully outdated, but the vessel has repeatedly proven to be one of the toughest in the Colonial Fleet. In fact, of the spaceships examined so far, the Battlestar stands the best chance of surviving a real space battle.
During the initial Cylon attack, the ship withstood multiple direct hits from nuclear missiles and a shower of projectiles fired from railguns. Despite this, it still stayed in one piece and escaped at faster than light speeds. This demonstrates that the ship can take a beating from high-speed projectiles and quickly rid itself of heat.
Most importantly, the bridge and other critical areas are located deep inside the ship where they are protected from incoming fire. That places the Galactica ahead of many other sci-fi capital ships in terms of design.
Battles are still much closer than they need to be, but the crew often makes stronger use of space physics than some other shows, with the episode "Exodus, Pt 2" being a prime example. It shows the Battlestar Pegasus crashing into a capital ship, then its debris flies out to hurtle across space and destroys a third ship.
Heart of Gold (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
The Galactica may be tough, but it isn’t invincible. So, if you’re looking for an iconic sci-fi ship that has a 100 percent chance of escaping any combat situation completely unscathed, then you have to step into the realm of the impossible… or at least the extremely improbable. That’s exactly what the Heart of Gold offers.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book, the Heart of Gold is shaped like a sleek running shoe with an oddly shaped interior. The TV show and movie each present it differently, but it’s not the shape or beauty that makes the ship stand out. It’s the Infinite Improbability Drive, which allows the ship to simultaneously pass through every conceivable point in space across every conceivable universe. This means it can travel to anywhere in the universe in literally no time without the “tedious mucking about in hyperspace.”
Even with lasers and near light speed projectiles, there is simply no way to defeat a ship that’s powered by absurdity. The Heart of Gold can accomplish even the most unlikely feats, including plucking two random hitchhikers from the middle of outer space before they die of asphyxiation. Additionally, random side effects from the drive often serve to protect the ship. For instance, it managed to turn a pair of incoming nuclear missiles into a sperm whale and a potted plant.
Even though the starship has no weapons and no basis in science or reality, achieving what was once thought impossible is one of the primary drivers of scientific innovation. Therefore, the Heart of Gold deserves to stand with the best ships sci-fi has to offer.
Which of these ships would you take into a space battle, or would you choose a different ship that didn’t make the list? Let us know.