Space Is Crowded… For Space

Something I was reminded of – by some of the comments here (…There Is Only Awesomeness) that suggest an assumption of ground combat as a default – is the surprising emptiness of space in many settings.

(I’m looking at you, Star Trek, where even the freakin’ capital of the Federation, Sol System itself, may have only one starship or even none at all present at any given time. Star Wars is usually better about this, but even then, there’s a lot less traffic than you might expect. And so on, and so forth and forth and forth.)

This is, needless to say, not the case in the Eldraeverse, in any reasonably developed star system.

Orbital space, in particular, is insanely crowded. (See the quote from Manna, here.) There’s the orbital defense grid, of course, but even leaving that aside, there are commsats, navsats, weather satellites (both monitoring and control), orbital mirrors, remote sensors of various kinds, space telescopes, junk sweepers, solar power satellites…

And then there are the orbital stations. Highports, research stations, orbital factories, skyfarms, residences (from city-sized habitats to personal mansions), skymalls, warehouses, control centers for some of the satellite constellations, data havens, propellant depots, autochandleries…

And all the OTVs, commuterspheres, satellite oilers, resupply skiffs, dock-n-snacks, and other small craft bustling about between them even before you get to regular traffic like orbital shuttles, tugs, commercial inbounds, commercial outbounds, the Watch Constabulary’s Orbit Guard…

Basically, near-planetary space is an ever-changing maze. And that’s true for pretty much every developed planet or moon in the system, to one degree or another.

That’d be bad enough if the universe worked on the kind of FTL where you can drop out of hyperspace close to planets. But since it doesn’t, then there’s the rest of the system, which isn’t by any means that crowded (it is, after all, much bigger), but which does still contain —

Long-range commsats and navsats, space weather satellites (and, close in, stellar husbandry arrays), bigger space telescopes, power-beam relays, drift stations (more farms, factories, habitations, etc., for people who like a little more distance), inhabited rocks likewise, transshipment stations for through traffic that doesn’t want to have to go downwell, smelterships, prospectors, rock pushers, comet herders, commercial traffic inbound and outbound, the Watch Constabulary’s Stellar Guard, stargates with their associated space traffic control and defense stations, more propellant depots and autochandleries…

…and, oh yes, the Imperial Navy, which in a valuable core system will mean an actual system garrison, but which even in a small, new colony will imply a system picket. With forward-deployed sensor platforms and AKVs thrown in, even by the minimal one-ship system picket.

All of whom are running their own local-space monitoring systems for space-traffic-control purposes, at least, and who are themselves being watched by SysCon’s own big track-everything-in-the-system arrays.

Which is to say, tl;dr, that your chances of making a successful approach from deep space to your target planet and making a successful landing without being detected are functionally zero, and your chances of doing it without being engaged are within delta of zero. To use an analogy, it’d be like trying to fly a Predator drone from mid-Atlantic and park it in the middle of the tarmac at Chicago O’Hare, past everyone in between, at the height of Thanksgiving traffic. Without being noticed.

Trying to do it with a viable planetary invasion force is like doing the same thing, except that instead of a Predator drone, you’re doing it with the battleship Iowa.

Which, to bring it back to comment-relevancy, means there ain’t no ground combat of any size without enough space battles to brute-force your way past that lot first, and there’s definitely no ground combat that the defenders don’t have all the time that they need to get set up for. Period.


8 thoughts on “Space Is Crowded… For Space

  1. An excellent point.

    Of course, I’d say that there’s another error that a lot of people make as well when contemplating space combat: Assuming that all operations must unfold in distinct phases: You have to fight a space battle to secure the orbital space before you proceed with the ground landing, you have to ensure all orbital defenses are suppressed to make sure the ground forces can be adequately shielded from orbital attack, etc. Everything happens in nice, neat little steps, and you can’t go to Step 2 without completing Step 1.

    In reality, for any force with both the resources and the desperation to try a full-on frontal planetary assault against a foe of the Empire’s caliber, I’d imagine that it’s going to be more along the lines of a small force running interference to try to crack open a small “window” in the defensive grid while the invasion force proper runs hell-for-leather for the LZ, possibly under active fire the whole way down. Heavy casualties are to be expected, of course, but may be functionally irrelevant if you’re basically dropping a flotilla of autofacs (or their functional equivalent) with just enough feedstock and defenses to crank out the actual assault force (including additional replicators) on-site. It might not guarantee the ability to secure the planet but… well, in the mind of a general running on a cold, calculated countervalue strategy, even the total destruction of the task force might make an acceptable tradeoff if it can inflict enough damage on the enemy that they can leverage it for a longer-term advantage.

    Now, granted, there’s a reason I call it a desperation tactic, but still…

    • To a certain extent, that’s true, but here’s the thing: orbits move.

      If you don’t own the orbitals before you land, you have a chunk of time measured in minutes at best to disperse and estivate before the “window” you punched moves on and another few grid elements come over the horizon with their KEW scalpels and graser cauteries. The impracticability of this is why that particular doctrine is established doctrine in-‘verse.

      (You can partially offset that by landing on a nexus that’s too valuable to cauterize, even carefully, but since those are all themselves heavily defended strongpoints, that’s just a slightly different way to say “suicide mission”.)

      It’s not a zero-value tactic, but it’s much more suited to land things like special ops teams that have a chance of disappearing off sensors in those very few minutes rather than anything that’s going to be a big fat target one way or another.

  2. To a certain extent, that’s true, but here’s the thing: orbits move.

    A fact that applies just as much to the attacker as the defender. Just because the main invasion force exploited only the “window” of least risk, that doesn’t mean the interference screen can’t run a “full-court press” along the entire defensive orbital arc to force the defenders to prioritize where they want to place their fire for maximum effect — either sacrifice yourself to punch out the LZ, or focus on the task element directly attacking you (which might ensure your long-term safety in exchange for giving the landing force a greater chance of dispersing and estivatibg, as you mention).

    And again, the OpFor commander might not be averse to an effective suicide mission if they can “get value for service” — especially if their forces are engineered to have a self-preservation drive that augments but does not override their “hunger,” whether literal or metaphorical.

  3. Granted, the more I think about this, the less likely I think that such an all-or-nothing shot would work by itself.

    Which means that any putative invasion force is likely to hit in waves, with a relatively small “vanguard” / “forlorn hope” sent in first to soften up the defenses and cause chaos while the invasion force proper fires into the melee from a safe distance.

  4. I was lead here from Atomic Rockets and I find your post interesting, but I’m pretty sure that some of the stuff you list wont actually be all that common, big offenders are:
    Comm and Weather Sats in the real world are about closet sized, so why not stick them in some closet on a mile wide space station?
    If you have FTL there’s relatively little reason to build space telescopes, they can travel to the stars.
    Beyond that there’s little reason to put something in space, especially if you don’t have magic anti-grav.

    • In response to this, it seems the local in-universe response would follow something along these lines:

      “Why are we climbing this mountain?”

      “Because it’s there!”

    • There is FTL, but it’s not like Star Trek’s FTL, where you turn on the engine and fly really fast from nearly anywhere to nearly anywhere. It’s based on stargates, which, unlike the ones in the Stargate-verse, can’t dial. (And there’s no warp drive, unlike in the Stargate-verse, to get you to places that don’t have a stargate). So you can only go where the stargates are, and those have to be hauled around STL. Telescopes are therefore pretty useful for scouting, and seeing where you might want to haul a stargate to – robots do it, but there are only just so many robots, and the trips still take a long time, even if the gate-hauler can just jump home.

      There’s not a lot of reason to put stuff in space if everyone’s on one planet with just dribs and drabs elsewhere, but when a solid percentage of a polity’s entire population lives on ships, stations, drifts, or even in a few cases in vacuum, there’s a lot more stuff that’s in space because it started there and there’s been no compelling reason to haul it downwell.

    • There are some kinds of satellite that become rather more useful once you’ve blanketed the planet in them, in many different orbits (see: Iridium, GPS, spy satellites). You’re rather less likely to have a constellation of 100 giant stations to mount all that stuff on.

      Those mile-wide stations are also going to be strong sources of heat, light, radio and probably other kinds of stuff that you’d really rather keep some of your satellites well away from (debris? rocket exhaust? gravity?). Remember that telescopes in space aren’t necessarily looking at things outside of the local star system, and things that sit in orbit around your world (eg. within convenient reach of aforementioned mile-wide stations) are desirable in terms of launching, recovery and maintenance costs.

      Oh, and as for telescopes: you build em in deep space, and link em up with FTL communications channels to do Absurdly Long Baseline work. You’ll be able to peek at distant planets and stars that would take you far too long to reach without some sort of magical instant-galaxy-crossing FTL, and most fictional universes lack those.

      Beyond that there’s little reason to put something in space, especially if you don’t have magic anti-grav.

      You have this a little backward. In a spacefaring civilisation, the stuff is already in space. All the power, (almost) all the raw materials. Deep gravity wells and thick atmospheres are the sort of things you might associate with places you’d want to live, and you might want to keep them nice by leaving your heavy industry elsewhere.

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