We’ve explored how we launch projectiles at the target (Space Guns), now we will explore what we launch at the target.
The simplest projectile is a solid block of mass with a burning pyrotechnic tracer on it. But even a block of mass has several complexities.
The material of a bullet can also be varied to cause for differing effects upon hitting. However, for railguns and coilguns, launching the armature itself is more cost effective than using the armature as a sabot for another projectile. This means railgun and coilgun rounds are restricted to highly conductive and highly magnetic materials respectively.
The bullets need to be cylindrical because they are launched from a tube, but they need not be aerodynamic in space. This means any sort of shape is viable in space, not just a bullet or thin penetrator. Fat blocky bullets are a viable shape, as are launching thin plates, flat side to target.
Given that aerodynamics is not a concern, what is the ideal shape of a bullet in space?
The answer is rather complicated. Certain relations are obvious though. For instance, a thinner shape applies a greater amount of pressure, as the energy is concentrated into a smaller area, so it seems like thin penetrators would be ideal.
However, there are two issues with that.
One is that Whipple Shields shatter thinner projectiles easier. Whipple Shields are often judged primarily by their critical diameter. This is the maximum diameter of projectile that they can be hit with and still successfully shatter or vaporize the projectile so that it causes no major damage. Obviously, material properties and impact velocity are both important, but projectile diameter is the main factor. Thus, thin penetrators are often not really worth the extra damage since Whipple Shields are ubiquitous.
Conversely, high velocity projectiles can sometimes be too effective. Indeed, given a large coilgun, shooting extremely high mass, high velocity rounds, the bullets can often blast straight through the initial Whipple Shields, straight through the main bulkhead, through several filled propellant tanks, out the external bulkhead and Whipple Shield, and finally off into space again.
Because only the crew compartments are pressurized, a spacecraft can suffer complete penetration and still keep trucking at 100% effectiveness. Spacecrafts can even get blasted in half and both halves can still remain reasonably effective (assuming each half still has a functioning crew and powerplant). Or into thirds, or fourths, and so on.
This is one reason why heavy redundancy in spacecrafts is necessary. A single lucky shot can immediately disable a ship if there is only one crew compartment.
On the other hand, one of my alpha testers went a different route. Rather than a single large capital ship with multiple redundancies, he preferred tons of tiny capital ships with zero redundancy. Either solution works, and has different pros and cons. More on this in a later post.
But back to projectiles being too effective. A projectile works best if it can penetrate the outer Whipple Shield and bulkhead, but is stopped there. That way, it can ricochet around, or if it shatters into plasma, it can inflict the most damage on the internals. In a sense, a larger area of effect is more important than simply raw damage.
Not only that, a projectile which passes straight through a ship fails to transfer much of its momentum to that ship, while a projectile that hits inelastically transfers all of its momentum. With very massive and very fast projectiles, inelastically hitting can cause tremendous torques on the impacted ship. Ships that spin out lose their carefully aligned targeting, and require precious seconds to reorient, which can mean life or death in a battle.
Or if the ship is particularly small, fast spins will splatter the crew against the inside of their crew compartments. This is actually one reason why I try to keep the crew modules near the center of ship mass, to reduce the torque on the crew in such a scenario.
If your projectile is too powerful, then the obvious solution is to fire large, flat, plate shaped projectiles rather than thin penetrators. This reduces the pressure, and the damage area is increased. However, this can be tricky since large bores will mess with the performance characteristics of all projectile weapons.
Another solution is to split the projectile into smaller, less massive pieces right before hitting the target. Flak bursts were developed as anti-aircraft warfare, and they remain an effective way to distribute damage over a larger area of effect. A small explosive detonates the payload into a cylinder of fragments, and the detonation speed can be determined accurately (using the Gurney Equations). This allows you to have very fine grained control as to the size of this “sparse projectile”, and you can detonate it at different proximities to yield differently sized clouds of fragments.
Other payloads possible in Children of a Dead Earth include explosive payloads and nuclear payloads. Nuclear tends to be a very powerful but expensive option, though due to the lack of atmosphere, their damage is incredible within a few meters, and then it falls of painfully fast. Explosives are similarly restricted to very small areas of effect but are much weaker, though they are fantastically cheap.
Should your projectile have thrusters? You can put thrusters on the projectiles you launch, and this can greatly increase their accuracy, however, the mass of the rocket engine and propellant is very costly. From what I found, barrages of thousands of small “dumb” projectiles tend to win out against tens of large “smart” projectiles, though I’d be interested if someone managed to optimize them to be competitive.
Often, a laser battery can effectively point defense tens of smart rounds, but against thousands of incoming bullets, no laser battery can keep up. Generally, against point defense, either you saturate them with a storm of tiny bullets, or you launch full blown missiles with heavy armor and large delta-v stores to get through.
There is another interesting aspect of projectiles that is often overlooked. Muzzle velocity is often optimized to be as high as possible. It increases the range and the impact damage. And even if it is too damaging, increasing the area reduces the damage without sacrificing range. It seems velocity should always be maximized.
Yet the equations for damage on Whipple Shields and Bulkheads are very nonlinear, and they have very different damage responses between hypervelocity and hypovelocity impacts. Indeed, Whipple Shields lose effectiveness for low velocity impacts, as the projectiles suffer little to no break up at low velocities.
This is one particular case where conventional guns and their low muzzle velocity are actually desired. When the enemy is packing multiple and/or stuffed Whipple Shields optimized against high velocity railguns and coilguns, low velocity conventional guns tend to be the trump card. This is one case of many where drones, which usually carry conventional guns, tend to make short work of the enemy.