The Physics of Space Battles in Battlestar Galactica

So, the usual complaint about space movies is that they put sound in space.  Sound is of course, non existent in space because there is no air for it travel through.  But, it seems that movie makers felt like the couldn’t do without it- the drama would be lost without the roar of engines or the explosions of cannons.  Battlestar Galactica not only avoids this, but they somehow make it more dramatic, like a small pressure cooker of silence, like you can feel the sound building up and about to explode any second like someone who doesn’t express their feelings.

But, they do one of my other pet peeves about space movies.  In the first episode, when the cylons are attacking and the fighters lose control of their planes, the planes suddenly scatter, and go into little spins or drifts so that you can see they’re out of control.  Now, I know why they did this.  It wouldn’t be dramatic at all if the captain were like “Sir, I don’t know what’s happening, we’ve lost control!” And then it cuts to a wide shot and the planes are all just doing exactly what they were a second ago- flying smoothly straight ahead.  Cut back to the pilot and he’s like “I’m trying to turn!” Not as dramatic as suddenly they’re all flying crazy.  But, according to Newton’s first law, an object in motion will stay in motion, an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force, if you lose control of your spaceship it will continue doing exactly what it was doing just before you lost control.

There is an alternate explanation, maybe they didn’t just lose control, maybe they lost control AND the cylon bug fried their computers so that the engines fired randomly and set them into these weird trajectories.  Which is pretty plausible, and because I love bg so much I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I couldn’t find a clip of exactly what I’m talking about, but here’s a youtube montage of space battles!

One more thing, about orientation.  There’s this fantastic scene where starbuck takes on eight cylons at once and it’s such an awesome scene, but there’s one little thing about it: So, she’s running back home towards the battlestar with her trainees when she realizes they’re not gonna make it, so she turns around to face all eight cylons herself in order to buy enough time for her students to get back to the ship.  She does this sweet end to end flip, but then she also does a barrel roll to so that she’s right side up again (like a swimmer doing that flip at the end of the lane.)  The thing is, in space there is no down.  So, as long as she’s pointing toward the cylons, there’s no reason for her to do that barrel roll.  Maybe training, maybe habit, but if you’re not on a planet there’s no reason to do that (other than that it makes it more confusing for the camera.)

There is a reason if you’re having a space battle on tv- it makes more sense to your viewers who aren’t used to real 3-d space.  We pretty much just see things in 2-D, but someday if we actually do have space battles people won’t all be oriented the same way.  Maybe in the beginning there will be some “rules of orderly combat” thing where we’ll all agree that a certain direction is up, just so we don’t get confused.  But, eventually, there won’t be any reason for two dueling spaceships to agree on a certain direction as “up.”

What would that look like?  How would it change tactics? If you had a bunch of spaceships and there were no gravity, how would you deploy them?


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