Last night I watched Star Wars IV: A New Hope and something jumped out at me. When the Rebel fighters are flying in to destroy the Death Star, all the X-Wing fighters move their wings into ‘attack position’, that is, they snap the wings out into the iconic X-shape. But since space lacks air or, for that matter, any other fluid in significant concentrations, what would the point of even having airfoils be? It seems to me that the wing configuration should be irrelevant to the maneuverability and speed of the vessel because there’s no fluid passing over them.
Joseph Shoer, a Ph. D. candidate in aerospace engineering who studies how modular spacecraft could be assembled has a fasincating piece on the topic over on Gizmodo. Turns out what I know about ships transfers, at least a little bit, to spaceships and I was right about the whole wings bit. From the article:
First, pending a major development in propulsion technology, combat spacecraft would likely get around the same way the Apollo spacecraft went to the Moon and back: with orbit changes effected by discrete main-engine burns. The only other major option is a propulsion system like ion engines or solar sails, which produce a very low amount of thrust over a very long time. However, the greater speed from burning a chemical, nuclear, or antimatter rocket in a single maneuver is likely a better tactical option. One implication of rocket propulsion is that there will be relatively long periods during which Newtonian physics govern the motions of dogfighting spacecraft, punctuated by relatively short periods of maneuvering. Another is that combat in orbit would be very different from combat in “deep space,” which is what you probably think of as how space combat should be – where a spacecraft thrusts one way, and then keeps going that way forever. No, around a planet, the tactical advantage in a battle would be determined by orbit dynamics: which ship is in a lower (and faster) orbit than which; who has a circular orbit and who has gone for an ellipse; relative rendezvous trajectories that look like winding spirals rather than straight lines.
The Physics of Space Battles [Gizmodo]