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.