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Space pirates

  1. Aug 6, 2014 #1
    A common trope in pop SF. But can they be realistic in a hard SF, no FTL, no hide in space?

    I have collected a few counterarguments (C:), and my justifications (A:) to overcome them, but i'd like to see other opinions as well, whether my answers has great flaws or not, maybe advices, good books etc.
    (My inspirators were Star Wars, Firefly Serenity, Rise of Leviathan)

    C: - Due to limited delta-V and different courses, you cant just board a spaceship.
    A: - They dont have to. They simply demand ransom for not destroying it.

    C: - They cant stop a laser signal in space, the attacked ship will alert everyone, the telescopes will surely track the pirate ship.
    A: - But if they attack the ship of party X, they can be sheltered by a colony belongs to someone hostile or neutral to party X.

    C: - Still constant tracking... they simply cant hide.
    A: - But if there are regular warfare in the asteroid belt, then tracking them is a third rate problem. Since propulsion system requires regular maintenance, the ships radiation signs will also change. Pirates can do dirty jobs for different opposing forces, so they arent interested in demanding that ships have to send unique transponder signals. After visiting X docks, the pirate ship cant be picked out from a number of small, private, manned cargo vessel.
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  3. Aug 6, 2014 #2


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    A few things:

    Tracking small objects (less than several kilometers in size) is difficult and usually requires multiple long duration exposures. This could be further exploited by pirate ships painting their ships a very dark color so as to reflect as little light as possible. Amateur astronomers sometimes line the inside of their telescopes with black felt to keep reflections inside the telescope to a minimum, as felt works even better than simply painting the inside of the tube black. I could easily see some sort of similar method being used if someone really wanted to hide their ship.

    New generations of space propulsion, such as ion engines, may mean that even the engine emissions are hard/impossible to detect from a distance.

    It is possible to hide a ship by heading towards a large object, like a planet, and swinging around so that it hides you while you fire your engines. This way you can come out from behind the planet going another direction, hiding you from your pursuers. The gas giants would probably be ideal for this, as they have dozens of large bodies that you can use.

    Intercepting traveling spacecraft may not be feasible, but attacking/raiding colonies and outposts might be.

    Most ships probably won't be unique, but one of an entire line of same-model ships, much like cars are today. It would probably a routine matter for a pirate to acquire a different "license plate" for their ship whenever necessary.

    The nature of space travel means that the most efficient means of transporting cargo is by using the largest ships possible with as little crew and fuel as necessary. They are very difficult to accelerate, so their courses would be planned well ahead of time and they would have very few options when it comes to course changes. The pirates could use much smaller ships that are easier to accelerate and catch up to the larger ships. (Kind of like how the pirate boats caught up to the larger cargo ship in the movie Captain Phillips)
  4. Aug 6, 2014 #3


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    But if we posit a solar system in which interplanetary travel is relatively cheap and easy (so much so that criminals can afford a craft and make enough of a profit to run it) then it logically follows that the manufacture and distribution of monitoring satellites will also be cheap and easy. Infrared would most likely be the best bet for finding technological artefacts like spacecraft because if they are manned and running they are going to be around 300 degrees kelvin hotter than their surroundings. That's not to mention the temperature of the exhaust which for high thrust I'm willing to bet is going to be way hotter.

    In terms of exposure a two tiered system could be used, one a series of interferometer arrays to allow pretty much the whole of the system to be viewed at once and another a collection of telescopes that can be pointed at hotspots picked up by the former system that aren't broadcasting their presence. TL;DR there ain't no stealth in space.

    A few more general points:

    Assuming that a pirated ship was successful in somehow acquiring valuable cargo and escaping to some sort of safe haven (given that interplanetary travel is still going to take weeks/months with optimistic technology that seems spurious) what's to stop organisations going there and intervening?

    A bigger consideration is why would cargo ships be manned anyway? If we're positing such an advance in space travel then there should be a similar advanced in unmanned technology. It doesn't make economic sense to put people on a craft along with all the support infrastructure they need if all your cargo ship has to do is rocket from A to B.

    As with most space tropes this one seems to require a hell of a lot of contrivances to make sense. Personally it irks me when SF tries to do this rather than simply dropping the offending trope.
  5. Aug 6, 2014 #4
    I thought about carbon nanotube painting if you want to make something really dark, however an IR or radar telescope in space is way cheaper than an interplanetary spacecraft. One could build a dozen for every hostile/suspicious spaceship. With this apparatus, you could still face too much problem with tracking if you know where to start? If the ship modify the course, it generates lots of heat. (Through a longer time, i expect ion engines. )

    I also thought about that, however if they can reach Jupiter, they can also make colonies on its moons, and they can track this manuevers also. I also thought about the Sun, as the ultimate stealth possibility... but i expect most warfare in the asteroid belt, lots of valuable metallic asteroids, far away from "civilization", planetary governments.

    I expect big transport ships to be fully automatized, so pirates can destroy them without any remorse, if they dont get the ransom. (Lesser cargo vessels can be owned by private persons, who want to make the trade deals themselves, in personal contact. Probably they can even have a nomadic life. )
  6. Aug 6, 2014 #5


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    It irks me when done badly. Otherwise I accept it just fine. An author always does what is necessary to make a good story, even if it doesn't quite make sense. Sometimes you just have to look the other way.
  7. Aug 6, 2014 #6


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    I should clarify that it only irks me if the author claims to be coming from a hard/realistic science stand point. In soft science fiction it can work fantastically within the laws of physics of that world but when an author tries to have his cake and eat it too I find it frustrating.
  8. Aug 6, 2014 #7


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    Yes but "who" is building them? What if there is no military or law enforcement available?

    I don't know who "they" are, but it sounds like you have a centralized government in control of the majority of the solar system. Even if you do, just because they can do something doesn't mean they will. There may not even be a reason to have colonies on the moons of the gas giants. And even if there are, they may have no reason to have tracking satellites and telescopes everywhere.
  9. Aug 6, 2014 #8


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    If space travel was cheap enough to enable crime that would seem to be a big enough reason. Forget piracy, what happens if a terrorist group or rogue state aims it's ship at your colony/city, turns on the engine and it doesn't turn off until impact at several hundred kilometres per second.
  10. Aug 6, 2014 #9


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    Another strategy they could use is mirroring the movements of the other ship so as to appear as a sensory artifact that can be ignored. This is a ploy used in the movie Hunt for Red October.

    As far as discovering a ship in deep space, the author might have to make clear that ships travel known shipping lanes and so a pirate ship can lie in wait until a target is detected and then start the mirroring to slowly get closer.

    Alternatively, the author could have the pirates wait near the source port or some wayport and then catch up to the exitting ship.
  11. Aug 6, 2014 #10


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    Isn't that a film about submarines using sonar? Why would that ever work in space? An IR array and radar isn't going to produce some sort of sensory artefact.
  12. Aug 6, 2014 #11


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    How do you know it won't?

    It could be perceived as an electronics glitch that gets displayed at the same spot on a screen. The idea is to be detected but ignored by the operator because you aren't doing any fast motions because the operator thinks its an artifact of the system.

    Also the point of stealth systems is to minimize your radar cross-section to make it look like you're a goose and consequently ignored by the radar operator. A pirate ship could have stealth tech and use these mirroring tactics.
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2014
  13. Aug 6, 2014 #12
    I thought there is no such thing as a united federal space government, space task force.
    There are parties A,B,C,D,E.

    Party A makes a war against party B. Pirate ship attacks the ship of party A, then goes to B or C.
    Even if it goes to neutral C, going there and attacking them in the dock means attacking C.
    Tell C to detain them is the same as detain the ships of party B.
    Waiting there until they leave the colony then attack in near space... might not be the priority when you have to face enemy fleets, that dont just attack a few transport ships.
    A colony could become a pirate paradise that shelters pirates in general. One could attack it, but still, pirates are a third rate problem compared to war.
    Yeah, if there were peace and unity pirates would soon perish, they thrive in chaos.

    (I expect warships to be banned from entering planetary orbit, corporate leaders and politicans only accept far away war, but asteroids arent planets. Nice things about international laws. If the pirate ship want to go to a planet it has to conceal weapons, hide them inside and act as regular cargo vessel.)

    I think i answered the first part earlier, the second part, my viewpoint is different.

    For example swords in space. Saying that swords protect you from lasers or plasmoids is really magical, but what if cant have a gun, because a bullet could puncture the hull of a space colony, or damage some vital system?
    It is not necessary the trope that is bad, only its justification.
  14. Aug 6, 2014 #13


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    There's a few reasons why I don't think this would work:

    1) Space is huge. The chances that a ship is going to be close enough for the distance not to be measured in light seconds seems pretty unlikely. You should see them moving into position a mile off and even if you don't you could just perform random manouvers and see them not be able to copy them until the light from your ship has reached them.

    2) Having just one system strikes me as extremely unlikely. Ignoring two systems just makes one dumb as a brick.

    3) Assuming you didn't trust your own sensors having each ship exist isolated strikes me as unlikely. Rather all craft and colonies will probably swap sensory data, akin to airport towers now sharing info about the sky. That should clear any confusion up.

    4) Even if someone was so stupid and had such limited capability that this was effective it would be easy to quickly adapt to the tactic.

    Think of it this way: If a nation on Earth openly and regularly harboured pirates do you think that nation would get away scot free for long? Hell no, especially if it started hurting the business interests of developed nations. I see no reason to believe why in space this would be any different. If you're a colony that harbours pirates then at the very least you can expect trade sanctions (which would be devastating if you weren't totally self sufficient).

    The part about people conducting business at the destination? Given the sheer distance involved I don't see how that could possibly be economically justified unless you arrange before hand. Plus businesses are pretty good now at not requiring face to face meetings. Seems like the setting you have in mind realllllllly goes for the casual space travel trope. In which case I'd say it's pretty far into soft SF so trying to keep things realistic is out the window. Might as well admit that it is soft SF and work within that.

    Even that example has some problems in a hard SF setting. It would be easier to invent a projectile weapon that could be used, perhaps by using ammunition that doesn't penetrate far or is unconventional like a tazer. Either way it's still the underlying point that bugs me: the world building is backwards. Rather than taking a trope and trying to work everything around that it's better to take a posit a world with slightly different laws and work outwards. Obviously fiction requires both but focusing on the former in my experience results in pretty poor fiction.
  15. Aug 6, 2014 #14
    Normal space as we know it would not be a hospitable place for pirates. Clearly too easily visible and problems with delta-V.

    However, I'd give them some chances in a softer setting with hyperspace. It could allow both enough hiding places and fog of war. And if author is nice some hypergates may be a perfect place for an ambush...
  16. Aug 6, 2014 #15
    Well, i see a number of nations rather openly support rebels, guerilla fighters, who do the dirty work for them, or do next to nothing against pirates, drug lords.
    Ok trade sanctions and blockades arent bad countermeasures... but that still supposes, that all major players agree, and dont say, i offer shelter to those people who dont attack ME, just like others do the same. Since everyone attacked everyone, everyone could be classified as a murder, pillager...

    Ok good point. Still, sometimes you have to transport people also, then the ship needs to have life support. So the pirate ship can have a passanger ship template rather than a simple cargo ship template.

    Well, i rather thought about the blades as a gang war weapon, however if the ammunition doesnt penetrate far, that means body armor can make it as efficient as 16th century guns.

    Well, at first i simply thought about the major players, then : why shouldnt privateers exist, who work as mercenaries? Then came the point, why couldnt theese mercenaries eventually become freelancers, who dont work directly for one side? (And do regular crimes in times of peace.)
    Then came that it could be something cool...

    What could you name as bad SF, that does this "backward" world building?
    Well i dont want to follow bad examples, however i want to explore any possibilities before i decide what should be changed?
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2014
  17. Aug 18, 2014 #16

    The whole sky contains 12.7 million times more area than the Ultra Deep Field. To observe the entire sky would take almost 1 million years of uninterrupted observing.


    ISS Magnitude is -6 max. It has a distance of few hundred kms.
    Now if we want to observe it in the distance of Ceres, it is a million times bigger, *10^-12 brightness.

    That is magnitude 24 if calculate correctly. The above link talked about magnitude 30 objects.

    Ok divide that million year with 300 and 1000 (thousand hubbles).
    Than a sky scan still takes more than a year...
  18. Aug 19, 2014 #17


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    No it wouldn't. A few things to clear up about the Hubble observation; firstly it was trying to get really detailed images so it took 800 images each lasting 1250 seconds. In the situation we're describing you don't need a really detailed image, you just need to know that something is there, if it is accelerating and if it is either a catalogued asteroid or another craft (which should be announcing its presence). Secondly the ultra deep field is a very tiny section of the sky.

    It's entirely possible to take images of larger sections of the sky at lower detail (which is great because we're not interested in really detailed images of galaxies several billion light years away). A wide angle lens can cover around 100 degrees, I don't have time to work out how many square degrees that is but for the sake of argument let's just say that we have a lens that has a FOV of 100 square degrees (the atomic rocket link else where in this thread suggests this). There are ~41,000 square degrees in a sphere so our one lens would have to take 410 images to cover it all. At 1250 seconds per image (the exposure time hubble used for the ultra deep field) that would take us around half a million seconds, 5 and a half days.

    But we're not looking for magnitude 30 objects, let's take magnitude 24 (at the moment I'll assume you're right that the ISS at Ceres orbit would be 24). 6 magnitudes is a ~250x difference, so it logically should take 250x less time to get an image. That half a million seconds is now 2000, a little over half an hour. And that's only with one camera, if we had more it would take even less time.

    Of course that's extremely back of the envelop and it ignores the fact that multiple images might need to be taken or the need for image processing, though I think both of those are fairly easy to work around. An actual astronomer might be needed to get a far more accurate estimate but I think this demonstrates that a quick scan at low detail is entirely possible in a short amount of time, certainly shorter than the time it would take a space craft to cross a significant distance.

    But one more very important thing to remember: this is measuring visible light! In space most things are very dark compared to the background light. But in infra-red a spacecraft with a temperature of 300K (around the minimum for life support) is going to shine like a beacon. How to work out imaging that I have less of an idea of than I do this.
  19. Aug 19, 2014 #18
    I dont know neither, although IMHO magnitude -6 is a shining beacon as well. 2*10^14 times as much brightness as magnitude 30. If take fourth root (heat radiation depends on T^4) it is still a pretty high value.

    http://webbtelescope.org/webb_telescope/technology_at_the_extremes/keep_it_cold.php [Broken]

    They think they could maintain 300 K difference between the two sides, i think it can be assumed, that recon wont be outer than the asteroid belt. Sunny side could be Ceres temperature.

    But ok, so it is reasonable that they can be tracked, even with magnitude 30. Still they can melt into civilian traffic.


    I imagined the political situation something similar.
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  20. Aug 19, 2014 #19
    Introducing the Trade Drone 2000! Can be outfitted to look just like one of your trade ships. Carry them with you or deploy them on solo missions. Can be armed as a mine. Will automatically negotiate a surrender of its "cargo".
  21. Aug 19, 2014 #20


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    I don't know, how busy are you imagining this future to be? Most ships are going to be light seconds away from each other. In addition space is not going to be like a crowded mall, the ability to track where a ship goes would be trivial, even if there were thousands of ships in a "parked" orbit above a planet. Especially if all other civilian ships are broadcasting their ID. I guess I just don't know what you're imagining when you say melt into the crowd, the only thing I can think of is a Star Wars style space port but I thought you wanted to keep things as realistic as possible (and even if you did envision interplanetary ships landing and taking off from airport like compounds they could still be as easily tracked as planes today given traffic control, CCTV and other flight plan information).

    Seems like you really do want to make a soft SF world so why not just do that? Don't get worked up on trying to justify everything if the real reason you want it in is because you think it would make a cool story. Just focus on the story making it entertaining and internally consistent.
  22. Aug 20, 2014 #21
    FTL would seriously confront with another story element of finding something beyond human understanding. (I like Star Wars and W40k but they are written already.)
    Putting the story in an untransparent universe... i think it is too much away from ours.

    Giving their share to the dock is a fine ID. If there are two similar ships, then finding it (for the ones who were attacked) is where is the red game. After a few similar stages, one should investigate dozens of ships scattered all around.

    I posted the link about the barbary slave trade, they didnt have the all seeing eye, but they knew where the pirates started. It is not like a present day situation that the police chases someone.
    It is about, you destroyed/ransomed/maybe in a few occasions looted a ship that is not mine, then what? It is part of "everyday" life.

    On the asteroids, yes, almost no gravity, while space is really empty, but i consider some protective dome is viable, no need to worry about a loose micrometeor.
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2014
  23. Aug 20, 2014 #22


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    Sorry I still don't understand. In a scenario where craft A has been attacked by craft B how can craft B hide if craft C, D, E and F are all point their telescopes at it and any other craft in the sky. if a computer is tracking it how can it hide? Even if it enters some sort of space station you could simply monitor every craft that leaves looking for it. The only way I can see it working is if it makes serious changes to what it looks like.

    This might seem harsh of me but if you're trying to model a fictional space setting on historical ocean fairing situations then you really have no hope of constructing a good setting. The two situations are nothing alike.

    I think I've listed all my reasonable objections elsewhere in the thread. To sum up:

    1) Space travel being cheap enough that pirates can afford to run space craft by stealing a few tonnes of commodities is already well into the territory of soft SF

    2) Having manned trade ships makes no sense. If a pirate threatens to destroy your cargo drone if you don't give them anything let them. Rather no one have it than they do.

    3) If space travel is so cheap then there really is no need to ever have manned cargo craft. If you need to send a businessmen somewhere then just put them on a passenger ship. And before you say that pirates could hold them for ransom we've already established that space travel is really cheap so just send along escorts.

    4) The idea that all the major political players in this situation would just go along with constant piracy when there are trivial ways to deal with it doesn't make much sense to me. Unless they're rivals running some sort of proxy war all it would take is a few off them to sign up to an initiative to combat piracy by embargoing places that shelter them. This isn't earth where you can sustain a population by growing crops pretty much anywhere, catching water from the sky to drink and breathing free oxygen. Without significant resupply most places are going to die out really quickly, which places them at the mercy of the Earth bound nations.

    5) To pre-empt a counter to 4 if you're going to propose that technology in this setting is so advances that colonies can be self-sufficient in terms of food production, atmosphere generation and manufacturing then you've drastically cut down on why physical trade would ever be needed. Why bother sending tonnes of product millions of miles around the solar system when you could just sell information digitally and have the local industry produce it?

    Again I'm sorry if this seems harsh but I think it's seriously a step backwards to try and make novel SF and then work as hard as possible to justify outdated tropes.
  24. Aug 20, 2014 #23


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    The Space Pirates Guild have published a how-to-write-an-sf-novel so that their story may be written:


    Also, perhaps you could watch the movie Master and Commander or read the books to get some more ideas for a good Space Pirates story.

    With respect to pirates sneaking up on ships, perhaps you could introduce a flaw in the system that scans for other ships around it. It could be something like a range limit (pirate can close the distance really fast relative to the range warning) or the pirate ship can spoof intership signalling appearing as a freighter or passenger ship (like the friend or foe signaling for aircraft) until its too late, or the pirates use small fast crafts to intercept and board (like the Somali pirate gunboats).

    System flaws could be that the detection unit fails to detect anything coming up from the rear of the ship (masked by engine exhaust/heat...) or the system must go offline for a short period for maintenance or range is detection reduced... Plausible flaws are always great for plot devices and open up new ways to develop your story.
  25. Aug 20, 2014 #24
    What resolution can they achieve, to see it more than a point?


    0.05 arcsec, from a million km, it is still 250m.
    (And IMHO, only the thrusters will have a really good visibility, other parts will be at least much fainter.)

    While it looks like to me, that we arent going to agree, however i want to learn the opinion of as many people, and explain my viewpoint as it is possible, before i decided how could i keep the other plot element if i introduce FTL, that sure helpful in creating alien worlds and fog of war.

    Technically not, politically similar.

    1: They can do regular business, smuggling as well.
    2: Why it is good for you to lose all of it, rather than pay 30% of it for example?
    3: Well hibernation is a change compared to reality, if some people are also transported, it isnt that suspicious. Escorts, yes they need attack rockets to deal with them.
    Yes that is the main point. :) They sold weapons to the pirates, who could otherwise would have been mere smugglers, and Ceres could become a pirate heaven in order to be the tool of cold or not so cold war.
    Even at present days, there are lots of examples of giving weapons to not so nice people to do something you dont want to do openly.
  26. Aug 20, 2014 #25


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    Hubble is not a good example, consider that hubble can't even pick out buildings on Earth but far smaller and cheaper satellites can make out the make of a car.

    The answer is obvious: because it is cheaper in the long run. If pirates know that you're drone cargo craft will pay 30% whenever challenged then you will be seen as easy pickings. If they blow up every time then it isn't worth the delta-V to intercept them (I still don't think the interception part of things has been justified either. Presumably the destination is protected or else why would you trade there and given the size of space how easy would it actually be to get close to a craft when it can see you coming and adjust it's course away from you?).

    Alternatively if it does start happening to you load bombs into your cargo. When a pirate asks for you to drop it you do and as they pick it up just set it off. No more problem.

    Again no idea what you mean here. How did hibernation come into this?

    So really you're not talking about piracy at all. You're talking about state sanctioned terrorism in the form of piracy.
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