Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Sunday 19 August 2012

Deep Space Force

Some years ago I made a Project Orion video which is doing rather well on YouTube, and everywhere else on the internet come to that. Not so long after, I started one of several hopelessly ambitious projects, which is an absolutely normal thing for any CGI hobbyist to do. In this case the idea was to render an enormous battle between fleets of Orion-drive spaceships.

One of the original propositions of the Orion project was to use it as a warship - presumably it would initially have floated around in Earth orbit, ready to rain death upon those pesky Soviets if they started looking restless. It became known that the Russians did in fact have their own Orion program. It's just about conceivable that this could have led to giant American and Russian battleships prowling the solar system, looking for trouble. In the 1980s.

Well, it didn't, which is a very good thing. But it certainly was a fun concept to explore. In my scenario, the Cold War continues until the mid-21st century, long enough for each to develop some fancy kit, like Excalibur X-ray lasers, although sadly I never got so far as to actually render any of those, and rather more physically viable ordinary optical lasers.

In George Dyson's book (the title of the project comes from a chapter in the book), he mentions a Orion battleship model that was shown to President Kennedy, who hated the idea like any sensible human being. Having delved into the more obscure and dodgy parts of the net in the course of researching this, I found there was some doubt as to whether this really happened. In any case no images of the model exist, so I improvised my own designs.

I did some reasonably detailed calculations for this, mostly thanks to the stupendous Atomic Rockets website. Sadly I've long since lost all my notes. I worked out things like how thick the hull would have to be to withstand laser fire at different ranges, how massive the ships would need to be, and how fast they could rotate to provide gravity without making the crew get dizzy. I even worked out how much excess heat the American ship would dissipate to power its laser turrets.

I envisaged the ships being constructed in space, possibly utilising asteroid mining, so size and mass could be unlimited. Let's start with the American warship. I followed the general stereotype that the Americans would have the more advanced technology, so their primary armaments are laser cannons. Although some would have it that two would be sufficient - one at the front and one at the back - I'm not a fan of this idea. It seems better to me to employ as much redundancy as possible, so I gave it 32 laser turrets.

The way I see it, there are several advantages here. To deliver the same total power, each individual turret need only deal with a much smaller amount of energy than if only one or two were used, which I think is a sensible way to ensure greater reliability. It also means that up to 32 targets can be engaged at once, which, if the enemy is shooting a whole load of missiles at you, seems like a major win instead of having just two turrets.

The spherical shape of the American hull wasn't for any particular reason that I can remember, though it might be so that the laser turret's lines of sight are obstructed as little as possible. Following the more advanced (but possibly less reliable) American stereotype, gravity is provided to the crew by two centrifuges, counter-rotating to eliminate any gyroscopic effects. Oddly, these aren't enclosed within the main hull, making them rather vulnerable and giving it a hamburger shape.

The massive cooling fins enable a huge amount of excess energy to be dissipated, which with all those lasers is going to be necessary. These are retractable, allowing them to present a smaller target to the enemy during battle. Open-cycle cooling vents are available for emergencies if the fins are damaged.

It seems to me that while such ships could easily carry enough firepower to completely obliterate the other, this might not always be necessary. A ship with all its weapons disabled could be forced to surrender instead. So the ship is also equipped with smaller, conventional guns. These could also be used as a last-ditch defence against incoming missiles if all the laser turrets were disabled or destroyed.

Moving on, the Soviet ship has quite a different design. The pointed shape helps spread out laser-beam fire at long range, preventing the Americans from doing much damage until they're closer in. The ship has no centrifuge - gravity is provided by rotating the whole ship. This is also another way to prevent laser fire from doing much damage, if the ship is inclined toward the enemy. Since it's rather smaller than the American ship, the crew can't experience full Earth gravity, and if it's necessary to stop the rotation then they could get rather ill. However, these are trained military Cosmonauts, so I'm sure they'd cope.

The Soviet ship's weapons are mainly projectile-type. The Gauss cannons accelerate projectiles to high speed using electromagnetic coils. The other missile turrets fire conventional rocket-propelled missiles. The X-ray laser missiles are envisioned as Excalibur-style devices (even though this project probably wouldn't have worked in reality, it sounded like something fun to depict). The casaba-howitzers launch nuclear devices which explode in a tightly collimated beam.

Both of the ships can deploy armour to protect the vulnerable drive section. Of course, this won't help a jot in the event of a ship-killing weapon strike, but it ought to at least protect against debris and prevent (relatively) small arms fire from being able to cripple the ship.

A gallery of images can be found here. Below, you can watch the full 4min 45s video. But be warned. To say it hasn't aged well is being kind - but then, it wasn't finished. It ends right when the battle begins in earnest. It has a lot of problems with Blender's starfields, rudimentary animation and terrible lighting (which was partly due to technological limitations at the time). It's also far, far too long.

For the enthusiasts - and I know there are some - he's a breakdown of events as they happen. Originally there was a plan to add voice-overs, but this never happened, making things perhaps hard to interpret.

0:00 : We begin with some shots of the American fleet, en-route to the Jovian system. Perhaps the Soviets have a base there, who knows.

0:30 : The ships prepare for battle by retracting their cooling fins, causing them to heat up to maintain their energy output.

0:42 : The ships rotate and engage their Orion drives, in order to separate the fleet for battle. They travel in close formation to easily establish to the viewer that there are multiple ships.

0:55 : We see the Soviet fleet in normal cruising mode, rotating to provide internal gravity.

1:06 : The Soviet ships fire rockets to reduce their spin, preparing to use their Orion drives.

1:15 : The Soviet ships retract their cooling fins.

1:23 : A rather lengthy sequence shows the Soviet ships firing their Orion drives to separate.

2:08 : The Soviet ships are now shown to be more widely separated (though still not very far away, for narrative reasons).

2:18 : The Soviets prepare for battle by aiming their missile turrets and deploying their drive armour.

2:32 : For some reason we now see the American fleet through a telescope on a Soviet ship. I guess this is to inform the viewers that they're planning to fire on the enemy.

2:40 : The Soviets fire projectiles from their Gauss cannons.

2:55 : The projectiles splinter into thousands of metal shards.

3:02 : Establishing shot of the American fleet. We see the shards from their perspective, via another cheesy telescope view.

3:14 : With thousands of high-speed metal fragments heading towards them, the Americans are forced to spend time destroying them while the Soviet fleet closes. Yes, you can see the laser beams, even though they're in a vacuum. No, this isn't something that bothers me.

3:40 : As the Americans run out of targets, the Soviets prepare to endure their laser fire. They spin-up and orient themselves at an angle to the oncoming fleet.

3:59 : The Americans now target the Soviet ships and succeed in destroying several weapon systems.

4:30 : The Soviets respond by firing a bunch of missiles. Then it ends, probably because I started my PhD and ran out of free time.

That's all folks. Although I wanted some level of realism, I wasn't concerned about getting things 100% true to life (which seems an unachievable goal for this project in any case). Sadly I'll never be able to finish this. Which means the enthusiasts will never find out who wins, and the non-enthusiasts have just wasted at least five minutes of their lives.


  1. The Russian ship's name right now is "Vigilantly". Did you mean Блюститель? (protector, guardian)

  2. This is pretty brilliant. Nobody portrays a space battle like this, not in any other movie.

  3. Fantastic concept video. I'm working on a hard science fiction novel and have vacillated between using He3 fusion propulsion verses push-plate fission for my military vessels. Of course, we don't know how to make a workable fusion engine yet while we could build an Orion-style battleship with today's technology. Hope to see more from you in the future.

    1. Thanks !
      Don't forget to check out the latest animation :

  4. ... gravity is provided to the crew by two centrifuges, counter-rotating to eliminate any gyroscopic effects.

    *Would* that be the result? I can easily accept that counter-rotating centrifuges might eliminate precession effects. But wouldn't the two centrifuges act like counter-rotating momentum wheels, stabilizing the craft's orientation and making it difficult to re-orient? What, exactly, do you mean by "gyroscopic" effects?

    But gyroscopes are pesky things, so you may well be correct ...

    -- Anonymous Nerd


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