Go Small or Go Home

Just how big can you feasibly make a spacecraft? The size of an aircraft carrier? The size of an asteroid? How about the size of a small moon? Today we will look at scalability of spacecrafts and the systems within.

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A large (190 m) capital ship compared against the Space Shuttle Orbiter (37 m).

When designing a spacecraft, certain questions inevitably arise concerning how it should be sized. Crewed spacecrafts very obviously have a lower size bound, since you can’t really miniaturize people like you can lasers or rocket engines. At the very least, your spacecraft needs to be able to fit people. However, there is no clear upper size bound. With missiles and drones, there is no obvious lower size bound either.

Let’s take a look at size limits of subsystems.

Power usage is more or less the primary way to increase effectiveness of systems, and size is generally the way to reduce thermal and mechanical stresses caused by this power use. But these laws are almost never linear, and often hit ultimate limits.

Take lasers, for instance. As outlined in The Photon Lance, scaling a laser up or down in size produces very little difference in power output. However, scaling it up in size reduces the power per volume and power per area so it won’t melt when activated.

This means you often want to keep your weapons and subsystems as small as possible, but it’s physical limits that force them to grow larger.

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A Nuclear Thermal Rocket (NTR) next to a Magnetoplasmadynamic (MPD) Thruster at the bottom of the image. The NTR is roughly 60 times as long, and masses 6000 times as much. Much of that difference is in the NTR’s enormous nozzle.

A trend with sizing of subsystems is that systems tend to work more efficiently when larger. A single 200 kN rocket thruster, for example, will perform more efficiently and be less massive than ten 20 kN thrusters. Larger singular systems distribute mass better and require fewer complex parts than many smaller systems.

On the other hand, those ten lower efficiency thrusters would probably be preferred in combat to the single high efficiency thruster because of redundancy. Compare a stray shot taking out all of your thrust versus taking out only one-tenth of your thrust. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck, between redundancy and efficiency.

The Saturn V used five rockets for its first stage. If one rocket failed unexpectedly, they still had 80% of their thrust remaining. This actually happened on the Apollo 13 mission, and they were able to continue their mission (until later failures).

Similarly, crew modules come with significant overhead, such as the plumbing for the sewage and air recirculators. As a crew module expands in size, this overhead reduces proportionally to the number of people within. However, bunching all of your crew together in a single module is a major liability in combat.

Alternatively, rather than making a single large spacecraft with highly redundant systems, some playtesters went the route of smaller spacecraft with no redundant systems. In that case, the redundancy is with the spacecrafts themselves, rather than with the subsystems.

Another consideration is that smaller subsystems can be manufactured more cheaply on assembly lines compared to single large subsystems. In the era of widespread, highly advanced Additive Manufacturing, these benefits are less pronounced, however.

There are certain minimum size limits that show up with drones and missiles, too. For instance, nuclear warheads have a minimum size. The smallest nuclear device ever made was the W54 at about 20 kg and the size of a large suitcase. This lower limit is due to Critical Mass needed for fission. Thus, for missiles, their warhead tends to determine just how small you can make the missile. If your missile has no warhead, their lower size limit is based on the rocket motor generally.

For drones, it is similarly the mass and volume of the weapons on that drone which limit the size of them.

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A small drone compared to the size of a human. The majority of the drone is reaction mass to offset the mass of the weapon and radiators.

But these are all lower limits. What about upper limits?

Generally, lower limits are all the rage because you want to make everything small, compact, and low mass. The smaller (volumetrically) you can make everything, the less armor you’ll need. The less massive you make everything, the greater the delta-v and thrust you’ll have.

There is actually very little stopping you from making enormous lasers or railguns, but simply making them bigger doesn’t actually improve their effectiveness or power, it only makes them deal with thermal and mechanical stress better. Essentially, you make things big because you have to, not because you want to.

But suppose you don’t care about making the most effective spacecraft, you just want to go big.

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A large civilian craft compared to a human. The human is the small black dot in the lower right.

At this point the Square-Cube Law begins to rear its head, and that is that volume scales cubically, while surface area scales quadratically. This is why large animals are built very differently than small ones. Without gravity, these issues are not quite as severe, but they still appear.

For instance, on the positive side, larger spacecraft are more efficient about their armor-to-everything-else ratio, because armor scales by surface area, and everything else scales by volume. Large capital ships tend to be armored like tanks while smaller ships run much lighter.

But on the negative side, acceleration suffers badly. Attaching thrusters to a spacecraft scales by surface area, and the mass of spacecraft scales by volume. Thus, the larger a spacecraft becomes, the lower and lower its acceleration inevitably becomes. As found in Burn Rockets Burn, thrust is hugely important, which is why only Nuclear Thermal Rockets and Combustion Rockets see major use in combat.

A ship that can’t dodge is a sitting duck to all manner of weapons. Most capital ships in Children of a Dead Earth range from hundreds of milli-g’s to full g’s of acceleration, and even that affords only partial dodging usually. Dropping that acceleration further is often fatal in combat.

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The smallest and largest capital ships in game. Roughly a 8x difference in mass, but only a roughly 4x difference in length (219 m vs 60 m).

Another negative aspect of growing in size is that the the cross sectional area of the spacecraft grows accordingly. And having a fat targetable cross section vastly increases enemy projectile ranges against you.

For combat spacecrafts, then, miniaturizing your spacecrafts is often the most ideal choice. But what about civilian crafts? Civilian crafts make a lot more sense to balloon up in size, especially for the sanity of the passengers.

The acceleration is still a problem, as if it’s too low, the spacecraft will have difficulty getting anywhere taking enormous amounts of time. But the other issues are gone. If travel time is not an issue, such as with a multi-generational colony ship, then you could try scaling up to truly enormous sizes.

Maybe you could hollow out a small moon to make a colony ship.

When you start hitting small moon or asteroid sizes, though, then you begin to have to worry about gravitational stresses collapsing your ship into itself! But that’s far beyond the scope of what you’ll find in Children of a Dead Earth.

The Wheels on the Spacecraft Go Round and Round

Spinning a ten kiloton spacecraft around is no easy feat. Even more impressive if you want to be able to turn on a dime. This article covers the issues of Attitude Control of spacecrafts.

A capital ship with four main engines gimbaled off to the side to provide torque.

On land, sea, or in air, rotation is easily done by pushing off the nearest medium, with anything from a tractor tread to an impeller to a rudder. In space, no such thing is possible, which means rotation can only be accomplished in one of two ways: by expelling mass via a rocket engine, or by storing rotational momentum internally. Incidentally, the second technique is only really viable in space due to the lack of any major medium, as friction would quickly degrade stored internal momentum.

The goal of these systems is to rotate enormous spacecrafts at reasonable or high speeds in combat, while being both cheap and non-massive.

The first technique is simple. Firing a thruster off center of your spacecraft will cause it to torque. Since rotation is the goal, and rotational acceleration is not, a second thruster must be fired to decelerate it at the end. And because such a thrust would send the center of mass off center, often two thrusters on opposite sides are used to start rotating, and two different opposing thrusters are fired to stop rotating.

A capital ship fires two vernier thrusters at opposite ends and directions to rotate. The rockets are water resistojets (hence the transparent plumes) and they tap into the main NTR propellant tanks.

These are called Vernier Thrusters, and see heavy use in space travel.

There are significant disadvantages to this method, however, chiefly that additional reaction mass is needed. Not only that, such thrusters usually can’t be Nuclear Thermal Rockets (NTRs), due to radiation concerns (recall that most crew modules are placed as far away from the main engine NTRs as possible). Cold gas thrusters don’t provide near enough thrust to be useful in combat, which means combustion rockets and resistojets are in.

Combustion rockets suffer from the issue that they require propellant(s) that are almost guaranteed to be different than NTR propellants, so additional propellant tanks must be added in, which takes up space and mass. This leaves resistojets as the prime method of providing torque to your spacecraft, since they can use the same propellant as your NTR.

Alternatively, instead of a system of multiple Vernier Thrusters spread out across your hull, simply putting a gimbal on your main thruster will do the trick instead. This allows your main engine to turn, producing off center thrust on your ship, rotating it. In this way, your main engines can serve the dual purpose of getting you places as well as orienting you in combat. This is one of the cheapest forms of thrust vectoring.

A few more complex thrust vectoring designs for achieving reverse thrust.

The primary disadvantage of it is that propellant is still expended when turning, however, no additional propellant tanks are needed as your main thrusters are doing the turning. For capital ships, the amount of delta-v spent turning is negligible, though for smaller crafts like missiles, the delta-v spent can raise a few eyebrows.

A more subtle disadvantage of gimbaled thrusters is that the size of the opening that the engines need to have can balloon significantly. This can yield much larger aft sections of the ship, and increase the targetable cross section of the spacecraft heavily.

Gimbaled thrust tends to be the cheapest and simplest solution to turning in space, and many capital ships and all drones and missiles in Children of a Dead Earth use them. Some capital ships opt for resistojet Vernier Thrusters, primarily for getting a smaller targetable cross section.

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A missile’s rocket nozzle is slightly gimbaled to the side, only a few degrees off center, generating tremendous torque. Screen distortion is from the camera being inside the rocket plume.

But suppose you don’t want to spend precious propellant turning? Then you need to invest in the second technique towards turning in space: exploiting Conservation of Angular Momentum.

Given a system without little or no external medium (such as space) and assuming you don’t want to expend propellant, the only way to rotate is by using conservation of angular momentum.

A quick example. Consider a pair of identical masses loosely attached to one another, floating in space. If one of the masses begins to spin in one direction, the other mass must spin in the opposite direction at an equal speed, otherwise it would violate Newton’s Laws of Motion.

This is the basic principle of operation for a Reaction Wheel, which is a flywheel with a motor attached. A flywheel is a mass with a high Moment of Inertia, or ability to resist rotational changes, along a single axis. When you spin a reaction wheel inside your ship using the motor, your spacecraft must spin in the opposite direction. Three reaction wheels must be used to get a full range of motion (one for each axis: pitch, yaw and roll). The Kepler Spacecraft uses reaction wheels.

A simple reaction wheel.

A Momentum Wheel is a reaction wheel which is constantly spinning at a very high speed. If a momentum wheel is spinning inside a spacecraft, simply braking it can cause a huge change in rotational momentum, causing a significant torque on your ship. Six momentum wheels are needed instead of three, two for each axis in opposite directions.

Momentum Wheels are often used for spin stabilization, as the huge amount of stored rotational energy will resist external torques. The Hubble Space Telescope uses Momentum Wheels.

Control Moment Gyroscope (CMG) is a single momentum wheel on a dual-axis gyroscope. By rotating the momentum wheel about the two gimbal axis, the angular momentum balance of the spacecraft can be altered at a whim. A single CMG can rotate a spacecraft along any axis by simply rotating the gyroscope to be in line with that axis. They are the most expensive and complex of the above systems, and are used on the ISS.

A Control Moment Gyroscope. The two axis of the gimbal allow the wheel to be oriented in any direction.

These systems promise the ability to rotate your spacecraft without expending propellant. Not only that, they require no exposed external systems, so they can’t be damaged unless the main bulkhead armor is penetrated. Sounds like a win-win, right?

Unfortunately, their effectiveness is very poor for combat operations. Modern CMGs are often used to very slowly change orientations over the course of minutes and hours. I originally had never intended to implement Vernier Thrusters or Gimbaled Thrusters in game, and was only going to use Momentum Wheels and CMGs. That rapidly fell apart when I did the math on them.

Consider the above example with the two masses on a string. Because they are identical, the spins will be equal and opposite. But if one mass has twice the moment of inertia, it will spin at half the (reverse) speed as the other. The greater the moment of inertia, the slower the spin.

If one of these masses is the spacecraft and the other is the reaction wheel, you want the spacecraft to have a lower moment of inertia. Thus, if your spacecraft has a moment of inertia 100 times that of your reaction wheel, it will spin 100 times slower than that reaction wheel.

Moment of Inertia is proportional to mass and the square of distance from the rotation axis. Roughly speaking then, very voluminous and very massive objects will have the greatest moment of inertia.

When headspinning, rotational speed can be increased by pulling ones’ legs in. This reduces the distance from the rotation axis and thus reduces the moment of inertia.

Spacecrafts by nature will have a greater volume than your reaction wheels, since they envelope these wheels. And they are guaranteed to have a greater mass than your reaction wheels, unless you are okay with an abysmal mass ratio (less than 2). Thus, you are guaranteed a moment of inertia far tinier than your spacecraft’s moment of inertia. And as I discovered, even spinning your wheels at enormous speeds yields rotations that take minutes or even hours.

In short, these techniques were not viable for combat rotations, barring some sort of future technology.

This leaves thrusters as the only viable method of spinning about in combat. How fast can they spin?

Because thrusters affect acceleration rather than velocity, the answer is that it varies. For instance, the time to spin 90 degrees is not going to be twice the time it takes to spin 45 degrees. And it varies based on which axis of rotation is used.

A simple metric is the Full Turnabout Time, which is the time it takes to spin 180 degrees about the slowest axis. This is essentially the “slowest” possible turning time for the ship, and most turns will be much faster, a fraction of this time.

When the enemy targets parts of your ship away from your center of mass, you can dodge simply by spinning along one axis. This particular ship is spinning with a single gimbaled NTR.

For medium sized capital ships with gimbaled thrusters in game, 20-30 seconds is a common value. Capital ships with vernier thrusters tend in the 10-20 second range, as do small sized capital ships. Very large capital ships can take up to a minute to do a full turnabout. Gimbaled drones and missiles tend to take 5 seconds or less for a full turnabout, with some being able to do a 180 in under a second.

Much faster turnabouts are possible by simply adding more and more vernier thrusters or gimbaled thrusters. However, this is often fast enough to deal with the rapidly changing nature of space combat. It is rare for a capital ships to ever need to flip a 180. Most of their turns are much smaller angle shifts, small dodges and broadsides.

Stealth in Space

Few concepts of space warfare have inspired as much controversy (and hate mail) as discussing stealth in space, so I figured it’s time to have an article about that.

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The bright Apollo 8 plume observed from Earth, as it makes a Trans-lunar Injection.

For starters, though, I’d recommend checking out Winchell Chung’s website, Atomic Rockets, which has an excellent discussion on this topic, aptly titled There Ain’t No Stealth in Space. I will summarize the main points about stealth here, but for an in-depth discussion of them, see the above link.

  • Carefully scanning the entire celestial sphere takes 4 hours or less.
  • Thruster burns of any drive with reasonable power can be detected all the way across the solar system (billions of km away).
  • Even with engines cold, the heat from radiators attached to life support will be detectable at tens of millions of km away, which is still far too large to get any sort of surprise.
  • Radiating heat in a single direction (away from the enemy) is easily defeated by fielding a number of tiny detector probes which idly coast about the system. Additionally, the narrower of a cone in which you radiate heat, the larger and larger of radiators you need to field. A 60 degree cone of radiation is roughly 10% as efficient, and it only gets worse the tighter of a cone you have.
  • Making a huge burn and then trying to stealthily coast for months to the target is do-able, but as long as your enemy can track your first burn, they can very accurately predict where you’ll be as you coast across the solar system. And you still have to worry about radiating your heat for months.
  • Decoys are only really viable on really short time scales, such as in combat. Over the long term, study of a decoy’s signature over time will reveal it’s true nature. It would need a power source and engine identical to the ship it’s trying to conceal, as well identical mass, otherwise the exhaust plume will behave differently. This means your decoy needs to be the same mass, same power, same engine as your real ship, so at that point, why not just build a real ship instead?
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Anti-stealth detection measures was developed heavily during the cold war for detecting ICBMs. In space, without a horizon or an atmosphere, it’s far easier.

There are a few more points that are not mentioned but I get messaged about them a lot, so I’ll put them here.

  • Hiding behind a planet to make a burn is not really feasible. All it takes is two detectors at opposite sides of this planet to catch this. In reality, a web of tiny, cheap detectors spread across the solar system will catch almost all such cases.
  • A combat-ready ship will require very hot radiators for its nuclear powerplant for use in combat. If these radiators are going to be completely cold for the journey, they will suffer enormous thermal expansion stress when activated. In order to avoid this, very exotic and expensive materials for your radiators will be needed to get from 10 K to 1000 K without shattering. Not only that, your radiator armor will need to be similarly exotic, which means it will likely not be very good at armoring your radiators anyways.
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Rocket exhaust plumes can be uncoupled from atmosphere using modern technology after some study. This step can be skipped in space.

Now there are plenty of dissenting views (as Atomic Rockets is good to point out, as well as rebuttals to the rebuttals). Certain partial solutions, such as using internal heatsinks, and so on, are pointed out, but they all are very limited.

Ultimately, stealth in space is somewhat possible, but current proposed solutions are either ridiculously expensive, impractical, or require you to accept limitations that defeat the purpose of stealth in the first place. Indeed, rather than consider it a ‘yes-or-no’ question, it’s simply a matter of how close you can get to the enemy before they detect you.

In practice, ‘how close’ generally means halfway across the solar system, with expensive stealth solutions reducing that distance only partially. Given this, Children of a Dead Earth runs with the assumption that stealth is not a reasonable military tactic for near future space warfare.

But let’s look at an example of possible stealth: replacing your main engine (nuclear rocket or combustion rocket) with a solar sail. Your exhaust plume is now nonexistent, but now you have to take decades to centuries deliver a military payload anywhere (troops or weaponry). Your best bet is to keep your payload very small if you want to get anywhere in reasonable time. And you still have to worry about your radiators.

Concept art of a solar sail. Abysmal thrust, and basically useless in the outer solar system, but it’s stealthy.

Suppose replace your crew module with basic electronics, and do away entirely with the crew and their hot radiators. This is reasonable for any short term space travel, but over the course of months where things can and will go wrong with the ship or the strategic situation, having a human element is necessary. Alternatively, if Strong AI can be developed, this is another possible solution, but this assumes that such an AI won’t require lots of power and heat to radiate as well.

A different idea to get around this problem is to put everyone in cryosleep and keep the ship basically frozen. Comes with a host of it’s own problems as well, chiefly that the technology does not exist yet.

Given a solar sail and crewless ‘dumb’ ships with miniature payloads, you can build ships that can sneak across the solar system and do very little. Such ships would be unable to respond to complex and unexpected tactical decisions, and would be very easy to outsmart, as well as easy to spoof with electronic warfare. They could perhaps be used as mines, given a tiny amount of a delta-v and a small nuclear payload.

Ironically, this specification of tiny, ‘dumb’ stealth crafts is exactly what you need to build a web of detectors scattered about the solar system. This means the field of cheap detectors you want spanning the solar system can be created stealthily.

The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit
The Hubble Space Telescope. Much smaller and cheaper versions can be scattered about the solar system stealthily if using solar sails.

Defensive stealth in space exists in full force. When you enter orbit of an the enemy’s planet, they might have an inordinate amount military hardware and spacecrafts hidden beneath the surface. But as soon as they launch, the secret is out.

This idea plays a major role in Children of a Dead Earth, as when the enemy drops into orbit around your planet, one must always be wary that the enemy fleet is simply trying to draw out your forces to get a tally on what you actually have. This constantly requires balancing of launching just enough firepower to deal with the enemy without revealing too much about one’s own reserves.

A Titan Missile Silo from the cold war. Similar silos could be littered across planets, moons, and asteroids with full fledged capital ships, ready to launch when the enemy enters low orbit.

The easiest way to conceal a large amount of military hardware for a long distance invasion is to hide it amongst commercial traffic. Of course, this requires complicity with the civilian traders, either bought with money or intimidation, but it is possible. And such perfidy also plays a key role in Children of a Dead Earth.

With that all in mind, I will admit that at the beginning of my project, I was dead set on getting stealth to work in space warfare. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that while stealth in space is certainly possible, it is not feasible given mass, cost, and time constraints. If you want stealth, you need to pay the price of decades-long travel times, enormously massive ships, vastly reduced military effectiveness, or all of the above all at once.

At the beginning of the project, I did explore some more exotic solutions to stealth, but I ultimately wasn’t keen on implementing technologies that were not heavily reviewed and published in scientific articles. At some point though in future posts, I will go over all of the more ‘out there’ technologies I considered for all aspects of space warfare (like a hypothetical nuclear rocket which generates an exhaust plume at 30 K, for instance). Stay tuned!

Gasping for Fumes

Finally we take a look at which propellant we should use for our rocket motor here. As mentioned in earlier posts, the two prime candidates for near future warship propulsion are the combustion rocket, and solid core Nuclear Thermal Rocket (NTR).

NERVA, the first Nuclear Thermal Rocket ever made, was developed in the 1970s. Later NTR designs have since improved on the concept.

Some reminders. Combustion rockets tend to achieve up to 5 km/s of exhaust velocity, and NTRs achieve almost twice that at their best. At the same time, NTRs suffer from lower thrust generally. NTRs in Children of a Dead Earth generally achieve around 3000 K temperatures in their reactor, limited by the materials that make up the core. Combustion rockets can achieve greater temperatures, but it’s wholly dependent upon the reaction used and the stoichiometric mixture ratio of the propellants (if using a multi-propellant reaction).

A popular combustion rocket is the LOX/LH2 engine, which uses liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen to achieve almost 3000 K as well (assuming a 1:1 mixture ratio). This is the main engine of the space shuttle orbiter, and I’ll refer it to primarily when discussing combustion rockets, though later we’ll explore its limitations, and switch to different reactions.

The Space Shuttle main engines, LOX/LH2 combustion rockets.

Looking at the energy densities of nuclear energy versus chemical energy, one comes to the realization that nuclear power is roughly 600,000 more energy dense than hydrogen. So how on earth is a hydrogen combustion rocket even remotely comparable to a nuclear rocket?

After all, remember the rocket power equation:

P=\frac{1}{2} T v_e

Where T is the Thrust, v_e is the exhaust velocity, and P is the power. If you increase the power by 600,000, either the thrust or the exhaust velocity must also increase by 600,000.

The trouble comes with releasing that power all at once. We have the ability to do so: it’s called a nuclear bomb. However, releasing it in a way that we can control is difficult, and must be done with a nuclear reactor. (This is one reason why the theoretical Nuclear Salt Water Rocket is so powerful: it tries to unlock that 600,000x power factor and still control it.)

A nuclear reactor’s rate of energy release can be seen through how high the temperature of the core can get. This means that between a NTR with a chamber temperature of 3000 K and a combustion rocket with a chamber temperature of 3000K, if they have identical mass flow rates, they must have identical rocket power.

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Three different ships with three different exhaust plumes. From the top, methane NTR, water NTR, combustion rocket. The exhaust plume shape and size is physically based, deriving from refractive index spectra data and gas expansion calculations. Note that the water NTR’s exhaust plume is invisible.

Mass flow rate is how fast you can feed propellant into the rocket, which is governed by the turbopump injector you use to feed the rocket. The flow rate increases with pump size and with pump speed, and in general, is the same between an NTR and a combustion rocket.

This means, given an NTR and a combustion rocket of similar sizes and similar temperatures, the total power is roughly the same. And if we assume the exhaust velocity of the NTR is roughly twice that of the combustion rocket, the thrust of the NTR must be roughly half that of the combustion rocket. By extension, if the NTR has the same exhaust velocity as the combustion rocket, then the thrust must be the same.

A more direct way to see this is to look at the rocket thrust equation:

T=\dot{m} v_e

Where T is the thrust, \dot{m} is the mass flow rate, and v_e is the exhaust velocity. It’s obvious from this that given a constant mass flow rate, exhaust velocity and thrust are inversely proportional. On the other hand, in order to increase your rocket’s thrust, you simply need to increase the mass flow rate by using a bigger turbopump.

Essentially, this means the biggest advantage of NTRs, their high exhaust velocity, is the root cause of their lower thrust. Additionally, NTRs which do not have this advantage, the high exhaust velocities, have comparable thrust as combustion rockets!

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List of NTRs, showing their propellants and their exhaust velocities. You can also go for more exotic propellants not listed here if you so desire.

In Children of a Dead Earth, Methane is the primary propellant used, because it achieves slightly better exhaust velocities than the best combustion rockets, which means in terms of thrust, it’s only slightly worse than combustion rockets. Decane and Water are also other NTR propellants that see heavy use.

But at that point, is there a purpose to using NTRs at all? If we only use NTRs that yield roughly similar stats to combustion rockets, why not just go with combustion rockets altogether? After all, combustion rockets are cheaper, don’t spew neutron radiation, and are somewhat less massive.

The trouble with combustion rockets, particularly the LOX/LH2 rocket, is the propellants. As mentioned in the previous post (Slosh Baffles), each propellant tank has an ultimate mass ratio ceiling. Roughly speaking, higher density propellants have higher allowed mass ratios. Given standard tank materials, water has an excellent mass ratio ceiling (in the hundreds), while hydrogen has an awful mass ratio limit (< 10 generally).

When using a bipropellant (like LOX/LH2), this mass ratio limit is primarily governed by the worst propellant. So in the case of LOX/LH2, the mass ratio limit is extremely low, because hydrogen’s mass ratio limit is low. Compare that to a Water NTR. A Water NTR will achieve comparable exhaust velocities and thrusts, but water is very high density compared to hydrogen, allowing much higher mass ratios.

On top of this, high density propellants allow your ships to be much smaller, making them much harder to hit in combat, and as indicted in earlier posts, minimizing your targetable surface area is critical.

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A drone’s internals consists basically of propellant tanks and a rocket, emphasizing just how critical propellant density is towards reducing the targetable surface area.

Much more dense chemical propellants are needed to compete with the mass ratio limits. At this point, we have to discard the assumption that we are using the LOX/LH2 reaction. However, when looking into different chemical reactions, one finds that more dense chemical propellants tend to yield much higher exhaust molar mass.

In thermal rockets, the exhaust velocity is based primarily upon the temperature and the molar mass. Chemical reactions that have competitive or better mass ratio limits tend to yield somewhat lower exhaust velocities.

On the flip side, combustion rockets with certain reactions (particularly those involving fluorine) can achieve greater chamber temperatures than NTRs using clever cooling techniques not viable for NTRs. This means the total power of these rockets exceeds that of solid core NTRs. However, they tend to have low exhaust velocities once again, which means the power manifests as much higher thrusts.

Finally, what about the costs of propellants? Unlike just about every other equation in Children of a Dead Earth, determining the cost of something has no hard and fast rules. As a result, propellant costs are estimated primarily based on solar abundance, and on ease of extraction from common celestial bodies. In this way, common NTR propellants tend to be quite cheap. Combustion rockets with high density propellants end up being much more expensive comparatively.

Solar abundance chart. Recall that Children of a Dead Earth is set entirely in space, which means that Solar abundance is used, not Terran abundance, which has a different chart.

So where does this leave us?

If you want thrust, thrust, thrust, you should go with combustion rockets with high density propellants. Find a reaction with a high chamber temperature and a low exhaust velocity. The high density propellants might comparatively pricey against NTR propellants, though. This sort of drive is generally what most drones and smaller capital ships in Children of a Dead Earth use.

If you want high thrust but still want a reasonable amount of delta-v, NTRs tend to win out with certain propellants like Methane or Decane. This is what ended up going on most large capital ships. These drives tend to be the good-at-everything, excel-at-nothing choice.

And if you want middling thrust and an even higher delta-v, go all the way and grab a Hydrogen Deuteride NTR. Very few ships ended up falling into this use case, though.

Finally, if you want cheap, go for a monopropellant combustion rocket. Good thrust, awful exhaust velocity, but cheaper than dirt. This is what most small, disposable missiles use in game.

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Nitromethane rockets. Cheap, light, tiny, and decent thrust. The nozzle is completely removed to save on mass, at the price of poorer thrust and exhaust velocity.

And of course, if thrust is totally irrelevant to you, maybe go for an ion thruster. Only a real option if you’re making a non-combat ship and don’t ever plan to dodge. And if you are okay with taking years to get anywhere.

One final note: It may surprise some readers to find that Hydrogen Deuteride (HD) NTRs performs better (9.1 km/s) than pure Hydrogen NTRs (9.0 km/s), especially considering that Hydrogen (H_2) has a lower molar mass than Hydrogen Deuteride. This surprised me when I saw it as well.

As it turns out, the Gibbs free energy of formation of monatomic Deuterium is lower than that of monatomic Hydrogen, which yields a much lower dissociation temperature. At 3000 K, H_2 dissociation is less than 1%, while HD dissociation is nearly 100%, yielding higher exhaust velocities. As a result, HD is both denser (has a higher mass ratio limit) than H_2 and has a higher exhaust velocity, making it better in nearly every way. The only real advantage is that H_2 is slightly cheaper than HD.

And there you have an analysis of the major near future rocket engines that would see use in space warfare.

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The choices allowed when designing your own rocket cover an enormous breadth of possibilities.

In the end, however, I am eager to see what sort of rockets that the players of Children of a Dead Earth can come up. Everything from the propellants to the stoichiometric mixture ratio, to the dimensions and shape of the rocket nozzle, to the turbopump injector attributes are editable in game. There are likely plenty of unexplored designs here that may beat out the designs I’ve made.

Slosh Baffles

So much time is spent discussing rocket engines that one of the most important parts of a rocket is glossed over: the propellant tanks. A significant amount of engineering goes into them, despite their simple appearance.

A rocket’s liquid propellant tank involves a number of considerations, such as propellant boil off, corrosion of the tank material, cryogenic insulation, slosh compensation, and pressurization. In space, without one g of gravity constantly pushing down, simply getting the propellant to the engine is a problem, since there is no force pushing the propellant into the rocket’s thrust chamber.

All of those issues must be dealt with using the least amount of mass, because of the rocket equation.

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NASA stopped painting the space shuttle’s external tank white after two launches and saved on roughly 272 kg of dry mass.

Indeed, propellant tanks tend to be one of the largest contributors of mass to a spacecraft. An oft made comparison is that rocket propellant tank walls tend to be proportionally thinner than aluminum cans in order to skimp on mass. In Children of a Dead Earth, armor tends to beat out propellant tanks in terms of mass, which immediately begs the question: why don’t we use a Monocoque design?

A Monocoque design builds the propellant tank into the outer skin of the spacecraft, rather than having separate propellant tanks at all, and it is used by a number of rockets in modern times, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 1. Thus, armor doubles as propellant tank as well.


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The Saturn V used a semi-monocoque design.

However, when a propellant tank suffers an external force such as that from a projectile, a water hammer, or a fluid shockwave forms within the tank, which can and usually will destroy the propellant tank. Thus, a monocoque propellant tank need not even be penetrated to be disabled. Enemies can simply hit the armor of the spacecraft hard enough to trigger a water hammer, and never even have to get close to penetrating the armor to render the spacecraft unable to move.

As a result, propellant tanks are kept separate from the armor skin. It costs more mass, but not significantly more, because it means the propellant tanks can be made much thinner.

Since Children of a Dead Earth takes place entirely in space without gravity, getting the propellant from the tanks into the rocket engine doesn’t happen automatically. There are a number of solutions to this issue, from ullage rockets (small solid fuel rockets designed to push the spacecraft forward, forcing the liquid propellant to the rear of the craft) to pressure diaphragms to piston expulsion devices.


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Designs for both various pressurized diaphragms and a pressurized piston.


In Children of a Dead Earth, surface tension devices, or systems which use the surface tension of the propellant to pull it towards the engine, in tandem with a turbopump injector are used. They do not need the additional pressurized gas that pressure diaphragms require, and the turbopump feed needs only slight pressurization of the tanks, yielding thinner walls.

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Several designs of turbopump fed bipropellant rockets. Nuclear Thermal Rocket designs are much simpler, requiring a simple propellant pump, and using an external power source rather than a turbine.

The lower pressure of the propellant tank also is valuable for avoiding water hammers for when the spacecraft undergoes rapid acceleration. Low pressure tanks also makes it easier to compensate for slosh effects with anti-slosh baffles within the tank.

On top of those considerations, cryogenic propellants may need to be insulated, although this is much less of a problem in space, as spacecrafts are not built in atmosphere, and so there is no convection of room temperature air always around the craft. Some propellants are corrosive to a lot of materials, and can only be stored in propellant tanks of certain materials. Finally, cryogenic propellants boil away at a slow but steady rate, and this too needs to be taken into account.

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Assembly of the first stage of the Saturn V.

A last note on tank mass. Spherical tanks once again save the most mass, however, cylinders fit much better in cylindrical spacecrafts (discussed in blog post Why Does it Look Like That? (Part 2)), so capsule shaped propellant tanks are used.

All in all, there are a lot of details to worry about, and they all add mass, which is very troublesome for any spacecraft designer. After all, recall the rocket equation:

\Delta v = v_e \ln \frac{m_0}{m_f}

Where \Delta v is the final delta-v of your spacecraft, v_e is the rocket engine’s exhaust velocity, and \frac{m_0}{m_f} is the mass ratio, or the wet mass divided by the dry mass. Recall that the wet mass is the total mass of the spacecraft including propellant, and the dry mass is the total mass except for the propellant.

In a previous blog post, Burn Rockets Burn, I went over the fact that the only drives with reasonable thrust for space combat are chemical propulsion and nuclear propulsion. In our case, combustion rockets or solid core nuclear thermal rockets. This limits your exhaust velocity to single digits of km/s. Also recall that while thrust scales up with the number of engines, exhaust velocity remains constant.

This means that the only way to squeeze out any more delta-v for your craft is by increasing your mass ratio. In particular, reducing your dry mass, or adding more and more propellant mass. Assuming you’ve reduced your dry mass as much as possible, getting more and more delta-v is simply a matter of adding enormous amounts of propellant tanks.

Since the delta-v scales with the logarithm of the mass ratio, consider this example. Suppose you have a spacecraft with an exhaust velocity of 5 km/s, either an excellent chemical rocket, or a middling nuclear thermal rocket. A mass ratio of e (Euler’s number, ~2.7) will give you 5 km/s of delta-v. To get twice that, 10 km/s, you need a mass ratio of e^2 (~7.4), and to get three times that, 15 km/s, you need a mass ratio of e^3 (~20).

To make things less abstract, remember that a mass ratio of 20 means your spacecraft is 19 parts propellant, 1 part actual spacecraft. At that point, your actual spacecraft will be ballooning in size, because even the densest propellants tend to be lower density than the actual alloys and ceramics of spacecraft components.

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A methane tanker with a mass ratio of 29. Note that it is mostly just methane at this point (28 parts methane, 1 part spacecraft).

And how much delta-v do you need? Maneuvering in combat around a planet or high gravity moon, from what I’ve seen, requires around 5-10 km/s to remain effective in combat (for evading missiles, drones, and even the enemy fleet). Somewhat more is needed when planning interlunar transfers, and tens of km/s are needed for interplanetary traveling.

For anyone who has studied the rocket equation, this is all pretty elementary. However, there is one complication that appeared from the rocket equation which was not immediately apparent to me. Once you have a drive chosen, the exhaust velocity is absolute. Thus, to get more delta-v, you get a higher mass ratio, by adding more propellant.

But there is an ultimate limit to your mass ratio, and by extension, an ultimate limit to the delta-v of your spacecraft. Not only that, you can bump into that limit very quickly.

Most of my capital ships run Nuclear Thermal Rockets using Methane as a propellant (for reasons I’ll outline in later posts), which yields an exhaust velocity of about 6 km/s. I started making a tanker with the same engine to refuel my capital ship fleets, and I wanted them to have an enormously high delta-v in order to get just about anywhere. Yet, almost immediately, I started hitting a low delta-v ceiling, no matter how many propellant tanks I added.

This is because every propellant tank added has dry mass in addition to its propellant. Thus, each tank has it’s own separate mass ratio, and a spacecraft can never have a mass ratio that exceeds the mass ratio of its propellant tanks. This propellant tank mass ratio approaches very quickly, and it depends heavily on a number of different factors, primarily the propellant type, the tank material, and the aspect ratio of the tank.

Some numbers here. In game, I optimized Methane propellant tanks to yield a mass ratio of about 30, around 50 for Decane tanks, and several hundred for Water. Most propellants cap out at around 50. Given very exotic and expensive materials, this can be doubled or tripled, though this often runs into corrosion or insulation issues.

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A hydrogen tank with a very high aspect ratio. High aspect ratios tend to yield better mass ratios. Despite this, hydrogen tanks tends to have abysmal mass ratio because of how low density hydrogen is. This particular tank has a mass ratio of 4.2.

So, given a Methane rocket with an exhaust velocity of 5 km/s, and an ultimate mass ratio of 25 from the propellant tanks, the most delta-v your spacecraft can ever conceivably have is about 16 km/s. Yikes! That spacecraft will never make any significant interplanetary journey unless there are copious fuel depots along the way.

This emphasizes just how critical propellant depots are in space travel, and especially in space warfare.

One final way to push these limits are through rocket staging, which involves discarding your propellant tanks after use. However, if your spacecraft is armored, this involves likely dumping off a lot of expensive armor as well. A better way to do this is to take a number of propellant tankers with you, and then scuttling them after you’ve drained them out.

In Children of a Dead Earth, this is the primary way to stage an interplanetary invasion. When there are no allied propellant depots along the way, one has to take a huge number of tankers along for the ride, and then simply scuttle them at various points along the way as they are depleted.

Whew! That’s all for propellant tanks! We didn’t even get to a comparison of propellants in this post. I’ll have to get to them in a later post, but for now, you have all the challenges involved with managing your propellant tanks in space warfare.

Burn Rockets Burn

We’re long overdue for a post about the rocketry of the game itself, so here it is finally.

Reaction engines are the cornerstone of any exploration of space warfare. Zero-propellant drives such as solar sails, laser sails, electromagnetic tethers, and the like, are not explored by Children of a Dead Earth due to certain limitations, particularly thrust. As you’ll see soon enough, thrust ends up being a heavily limiting factor for space travel.

Design for a Nuclear Thermal Rocket, which is more or less a nuclear reactor jammed into the thrust chamber of a thermal rocket engine.

The primary drive of Children of a Dead Earth is the Solid Core Nuclear Thermal Rocket, though a number of other technologies are supported. Many futuristic and experimental technologies were not included because a full treatment of these technology’s limitations has been published in scientific literature. Implementing the basic equations for a technology’s abilities, without fully implementing the mechanical and thermal stresses of that technology, would be disingenuous towards the end goal of the game. From my perspective, only exploring what a technology can do without keeping tabs on what it can’t is no better than inventing fictitious technologies altogether.

But anyways, why is the Nuclear Thermal Rocket (NTR) the go to drive in use? If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll find that it’s constantly brought up that delta-v is the limiting factor on just about everything. And due to the rocket equation, the easiest way to get more delta-v is to get a better drive with a better exhaust velocity. Well designed Solid Core Nuclear Thermal Rockets achieve 4 – 9 km/s, better than chemical propulsion, but mediocre in comparison, for instance, to ion thrusters, which can achieve 100 km/s or more. Or if you go for laser propulsion, or fission sails, or many more options, you can achieve orders of magnitude better exhaust velocity.

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Hey look, those Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters have great exhaust velocities. Why don’t we use them instead?

You can also scale up the thrust of a rocket, but not the exhaust velocity. If you stick two identical engines together, your thrust doubles, but your exhaust velocity stays constant. So isn’t exhaust velocity the most important attribute of an engine?

Not exactly. You can work with a mediocre exhaust velocity with a greater mass ratio (though this maxes out too, this will be discussed in future posts) and staging. Counterintuitively, trying to get around mediocre acceleration is actually far more difficult.

After implementing the Nuclear Thermal Rocket, I looked into ion thrusters, and settled on the Magnetoplasmadynamic (MPD) Thruster, because it had some of the highest thrust out of all of them, and thrust is quite nice for dodging in combat. I built a few thrusters in the megawatt range, tried them out on a few missions, and their limitations became immediately apparent.

Thrust, and by extension, acceleration, is not simply important for dodging in combat. Low accelerations not only prevent you from using standard orbital maneuvers like Hohmann Transfers or Orbit Phasing, they vastly increase burn time and ultimately travel time. Getting between planets, for instance, might require a longer burn time than the actual period of the planets themselves, years, or even decades! Getting cargo anywhere in the solar system was prohibitively slow. NTRs and chemical propulsion turned out to be far superior.

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It doesn’t matter that you have tons of delta-v, if it takes you years or decades to use it all.

With combat spacecraft, it only got worse. The accelerations are so poor that orbital evasion maneuvers are impossible to execute against high-g missiles or anything else really. In range of weapons fire, enemy projectile range is limited primarily by the target’s areal cross section, and its acceleration. With accelerations as low as the MPD Thruster was yielding (micro-g’s at best, nano-g’s at worst), my warships were basically immobile, sitting ducks for the enemy. And I should emphasize: The MPD Thruster yields one of the highest thrusts of any of the ion drive designs.

Okay, though we can just crank up the power consumption, and get higher thrusts, right? You can actually, as long as you keep an eye on the various stresses of the design. In particular, Onset Phenomenon of MPD Thrusters gets rather nasty at megawatt levels of power.

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Designing a MPD Thruster. Compare it to the NTR above. This MPD Thruster has 4 times the exhaust velocity, yet the NTR has over 10,000 times the thrust.

But more power requires more nuclear reactors, and more reactors require more heat radiators. The amount of heat radiators by mass became overwhelming, and reduced the spacecraft’s overall acceleration faster than adding more MPD Thrusters could increase it.

At this point, the Rocket Power equation (it’s further down in the link) should be pointed out. For a given amount of power, the thrust is inversely proportional to the exhaust velocity. This equation became very evident with MPD Thrusters. One could increase the mass flow of the engine (and thus, the thrust) at the cost of plasma excitation (and thus, exhaust velocity). The two quantities were directly opposed.

I designed a MPD Thruster with exhaust velocities comparable to NTRs, and found the thrust still lacking. NTRs had a rocket power in the multi-gigawatt range, and my MPD Thrusters were in the tens or hundreds of megawatts range. They’re both run via nuclear reactors, so why were MPD Thrusters so much worse in this regard?

It wasn’t until I designed resistojets powered by a nuclear reactor (Nuclear Electric Propulsion) that it hit me. The additional step between the nuclear power generation and actually utilizing this power is the problem. NTRs and Combustion Rockets expel most of their waste heat through the exhaust itself, while nuclear powered resistojets and MPD Thrusters must expel most of their their waste heat through heat radiators unconnected to the drive. Making a MPD Thruster or resistojet with the same power as NTRs requires a staggering amount of radiators while NTRs do not. Counting the mass of the radiators needed for such a high powered MPD Thruster into the drive’s total thrust-to-mass ratio yields abysmal ratios.

In fact, most drives suffer from this same limitation that NTRs and Combustion Rockets avoid. Only a few drives, like Nuclear Pulse Propulsion manage to sidestep the issue of requiring enormous amounts of radiators to have comparable power. But ion drives, and nearly all other high-exhaust-velocity counterparts, fall flat. As it turns out, thrust is hugely important to spacecraft.

It was at this point when it finally clicked for me why aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, inventor of the Nuclear Salt Water Rocket, has long since called ion thrusters (in particular, VASIMR) a hoax. I personally wouldn’t call them hoaxes, but in order for them to be the future of space travel would require a hypothetical advance in technology to fix their glaring flaws. As it stands, ion thrusters don’t appear to be viable for any sort of bulk space transportation. For scouts and tiny probe spacecrafts, ion thrusters are great. But for moving cargo, passengers, and military ordnance around the solar systems, ion thrusters and electric propulsion simply aren’t going to cut it.

Leave it to Zubrin to conceive of an engine that requires continuously detonating nukes inside your rocket’s thrust chamber.

Extremely high thrust propulsion looks to be the way to go, unless the radiator limitations can be solved somehow. Discounting far future drives like antimatter engines, this cleanly kills off a huge portion of potential drives for bulk space travel: ion thrusters, most sails and tethers, electric thrusters, photon thrusters, fission fragment thrusters. All you are left with besides chemical propulsion is nuclear, nuclear, nuclear. Maybe I should’ve listened to Robert Zubrin from the start.

That’s a quick run through on the rocketry of the game, next time we’ll explore one of the most overlooked, yet extremely important parts about space travel: the propellant tanks themselves, as well as the pros and cons of different propellants to use. As it turns out, neither of these are as simply as you might imagine.