What to shoot?

We’ve explored how we launch projectiles at the target (Space Guns), now we will explore what we launch at the target.

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Point defense railguns firing tiny 10 gram bullets against a missile salvo.

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?

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A fin stabilized Kinetic Energy Penetrator.

 

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.

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A single-stage and a multi-stage Whipple Shield after impact.

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.

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Cut in half but still threatening. Probably not for much longer though.

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.

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Of course, if you don’t have enough power behind your bullets, you won’t penetrate the main bulkheads at all.

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.

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A flak barrage slices through a Laser Frigate.

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.

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Railgun point defense against a salvo of armored missiles. The missiles and their exhaust plumes are too small and dark to see, so they are each highlighted by the green circle.

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.

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Whipple Shields perform the worst between the Ballistic Range and the Shatter Range, which is approximately 3 km/s.

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.

Space Guns

In the prior post, Misconceptions about Space Warfare, combat was roughly explored.

The general idea was that missiles and drones dominate long range combat since given enough delta-v, they can go anywhere a capital ship can go. Projectile weapons tend to dominate mid range combat, when capital ships or drones are tens or hundreds of kilometers away. And finally, lasers dominate short range, but also see use for mid range precision damage.

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What it’s like on the receiving end of a drone projectile barrage. The occasional ricochet is also physically based.

Today, we’ll explore projectile weapons. The big three projectile launchers used most are Conventional GunsRailguns, and Coilguns. There are also Linear Induction Motors used (railguns are technically a specialization of Linear Motors), which do not see major use aside from electromagnetic catapulting.

At their core, projectile weapons are concerned with two things: how big of a projectile it can launch, and how fast it can launched.

However, there are a multitude of other considerations as well. Mass. Cost. Size. Power Consumption. Cooling speed and temperature. Turning speed and angle. Armor against enemy attacks. Ammunition mass, cost, volume, and volatility. These are all accounted for in Children of a Dead Earth.

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Firing a railgun. Ganymede in the background.

Before we contrast our three weapons, let’s start with commonalities.

All three weapon designs end up being tubular shaped, and accelerate their projectiles down that tube. This means these weapons are Cantilever Beams, or beams supported at one end, and as such, they will vibrate upon firing, causing inaccuracy and possibly shattering the weapon if the stress is too great. This is one limitation alluded to in a previous post (Origin Stories).

Another consideration is recoil, which all weapons must have, lest they violate conservation of momentum. Recoil stresses can also damage the weapon, and must be accounted for. Unless you use a Recoilless Rifle. Recoilless rifles have the issue that they need an exit pathway for the exhaust gases, which is tricky to make work in a large spacecraft, especially if the weapon is turreted.

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Diagram of a recoilless rifle.

Note: Recoilless railguns or recoilless coilguns have never been attempted, but they are hypothetically possible, if you wish to eject the rails or the coils. That would likely be more expensive than what it’s worth, however.

A final concern is cooling. All of these weapon designs can use simple radiative cooling effectively in space to cool down, letting their long, exposed barrels radiate away all their excess heat. This is actually quite effective, and it is uncommon for projectile weapons to require additional radiators beyond their own gun barrel (unless you count the reactors powering them, which is a different story).

Now the differences.

Conventional guns detonate an explosive, and use the expansion of gases from that combustion reaction to accelerate a projectile down the tube. It’s more or less a combustion rocket engine with a bullet stopping it up. The tube is nothing more than a container to keep the gases in. As a result, the tube is cheap, the explosive ammunition is cheap, and no external power is needed. The downsides are lower muzzle velocities (less than 2 km/s usually) and the ammunition is very volatile.

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An ammo bay explodes, tearing the capital ship in half. Note the explosion is faint and spherical. Explosions in space lose all brightness and color microseconds after combusting.

Volatile ammunition is a problem not just for when your ammo bays get hit, but for lasers as well. Precision lasers love conventional guns, as they can heat up the tube, prematurely detonating the round, and also potentially shattering the weakened gun barrel in the process.

Railguns run current through a pair of rails with a sliding armature between them, and the Lorentz Force that results from the current loop accelerates the projectile armature. They tend to have much higher muzzle velocities (<10 km/s) and nonvolatile ammunition. On the other hand, they require huge power draws, and the rails/barrel tend to be much more expensive and massive. Due to the way the rails ablate from heat and friction, railguns excel with smaller projectiles, and suffer with larger ones. All things considered, smaller projectiles are easier to make more accurate.

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Designing a powerful 13 MW coilgun.

Coilguns run current through a series of loops, and use the magnetic field that results from these current loops to accelerate a magnetic armature down the barrel. They tend to have comparably high muzzle velocities as railguns, and also have nonvolatile ammunition. Their downsides are huge power draws again, but the coils/barrel tends to be somewhat cheaper and less massive than railguns. On the flip side, the ammunition is usually very expensive (unless you want to use cheap magnetic material like Iron, which yields much lower exit velocities compared to exotic stuff like Magnetic Metal Glass). In stark contrast to railguns, coilgun projectiles excel with larger projectiles, and suffer with smaller ones. This is due to Magnetic Saturation, where projectiles become saturated, and begin accelerating much slower, and it can only really be fought by using more and more massive projectiles (longer barrels do not help).

In a way, the three weapons tend to have their own niche in space warfare.

Conventional guns are cheap, and perfect for putting on disposable drones and small crafts without huge power supplies. Also, small crafts will be fast enough to get into range, as conventional guns have lower exit velocities and thus shorter ranges.

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Conventional guns are cheap, low power, and small, which makes them the ideal weapon for small drones. Ceres in the background.

Railguns and Coilguns both have comparable exit velocities and power consumptions, much higher than conventional guns, and they dominate the capital ship battle space.

Railgun projectiles, though, tend to be smaller, less damaging, yet more accurate. This makes railguns the main point defense projectile system against drones and missiles (though lasers tend to beat them out against drones). Railguns also enjoy prominent use against enemy capital ships, great for perforating Whipple Shields and wearing down main bulkheads. The main autocannons in any capital ship engagement.

Coilguns, with their expensive and massive projectiles, tend to be limited to select ships which can afford the mass of their weapons. They form the inaccurate but devastating heavy hitters of capital ship combat.

These are the main constituents of mid to close range combat. There are a few projectile weapon technologies that were passed over for various reasons, but should be mentioned here.

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A two stage light gas gun. Much bulkier than its electromagnetic brethren.

Light Gas Guns are a weapon which is capable of reaching similar exit velocities as railguns and coilguns. They are based on the principle that the speed of sound in a light gas (like hydrogen) is much higher than the speed of sound in air. With that in mind, a projectile can be accelerated at the speed of sound in the light gas using an explosive piston compressing that gas. In a sense, a light gas gun is like a spring airgun, only it uses a light gas instead of air. They also have none of the high power requirements of railguns or coilguns.

The downsides of light gas guns are their large size, and large and volatile ammunition. Each round launched requires not just explosives to hit the piston, but also a significant amount of light gas to accelerate it. As earlier posts pointed out (Gasping for Fumes), light gases like hydrogen have terrible densities, requiring huge volumes. Your ammo bay, in addition to exploding if hit, is going to be prohibitively large, making light gas guns not particularly viable for space warfare.

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A Ram Accelerator

Ram Accelerators are weapons which launch a projectile supersonically into a tube of combustable gases. Using scramjet technology, the weapon will accelerate even faster through the tube of gases. It has the advantages of a conventional gun (cheap, low power) with muzzle velocities comparable to railguns and coilguns. However, it requires additional combusting gases with each firing, giving it similar problems to light gas guns.

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An Explosively Formed Penetrator.

Explosively Formed Penetators are modern day weapons (they currently see heavy use in Iraq as IEDs) which uses a huge amount of explosives shaped in a lens to form a jet of molten metal and launch it at a target. Although it is primarily used as a warhead (and referred to as a Shaped Charge in that case), it can be used as a long range weapon. It is competitive with coilgun and railgun muzzle velocities, at the expense of only being able to shoot an explosively shaped projectile, meaning no payloads can be used with this. One major issue is the vulnerable ammo bay, which is like conventional gun’s ammo bay, but much worse. One hit, and the bay will have enough explosives to instantly shred the entire ship apart.

The other major flaw is that this weapon is that it’s absolute laser bait. The weapon is large, and the explosives are only covered by a thin coating of material, which makes for an easy precision laser hit. Because the explosives must be detonated in the correct manner, a laser-induced detonation is likely to severely damage the weapon as soon as any protective armor is pulled back.

Helical Railguns are a cross between a coilgun and a railgun. These systems have very little literature written on them, and the technology does not exist in a practical form, nor have their limitations and promises been studied heavily.

Nuclear Launched Projectiles are a technology where nuclear detonations are used to fling projectiles at a target (one test yielded a whopping 66 km/s). The main problem is that this requires the gun to be very far away from your capital ships, a single-shot drone essentially. Very little research has been done into this sort of weapon, so its actual viability for warfare is unclear. It is likely to be extremely cost ineffective.

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A Voitenko Compressor, the only known practical method for generating enormous velocities.

Finally, Voitenko Compressors are guns which uses explosives to shape a gas into a shockwave to launches projectiles at enormous velocities, 60 km/s or higher. It was developed in the 1960s but little progress has been made with it, as a firing of it destroys the entire weapon, as well anything surrounding it. This relegates its use to a single-shot drone, once again, if these problems can’t be resolved. In the future, it could end up being the most powerful projectile ever developed, but currently, it is not a viable technology.

That was a small survey of possible future technologies, and most were not implemented because Children of a Dead Earth is near future. Far future technologies do not have the same rigorous application of engineering analysis, and so there no data on these technologies’ limitations, scaling laws, or true performance.

But what do we actually shoot? There’s more to what you shoot than simply mass, even for small weapons. Even if you’re not launching a payload, or a small gyrojet, or even a full blown missile, the shape and material of your projectile still make a big difference on how it will damage the enemy. We’ll explore these in a future post.