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A subtrope of Space Does Not Work That Way
Hollywood is not interested in teaching or even researching physics, and generally doesn't even depict normal explosions on Earth accurately, so it's no surprise that explosions in space rely on Rule of Cool
rather than science. In the movies, explosions in space work pretty much the same way explosions on Earth would (or rather the way film-makers imagine
they would, with lots of red flames and smoke).
In reality, space has no air to transfer the explosive energy to. Thus, explosions would have an initial brilliant flash, and the resulting spherical
fireball and debris would travel away from the point of explosion far too fast for the eye to see.
Nuclear explosions would be similar, but with a much brighter flash, and little or no visible debris since it would be vaporized.
Explosions in vacuum on the surface of a planet, moon, asteroid etc. will look similar to those in zero-g, but any debris that does not achieve escape velocity in the local gravity field will arc back down and rain to the surface. In low gravity, this could take minutes or even hours.
Further, if a spacecraft blows up, the explosion should have the same velocity as the craft did (possibly altered by the velocity of whatever hit it). I.e., the boom should keep moving. Many movies and shows have a fast-moving craft turn into a stationary
explosion (relative to the camera).
Above all, explosions in vacuum would be silent
In many cases, this is caused by the method of special effects: actual pyrotechnics in an atmosphere. It should be noted that this is generally considered an Acceptable Break From Reality
by the majority of the audience.
Many Hollywood Explosions in Space
will also include a Planar Shockwave
This is such an ubiquitous trope that only aversions and subversions should be listed.
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Anime and Manga
- Most explosions in space combat scenes in most Gundam series' follow the more realistic quickly-fading spherical explosion pattern. There usually doesn't seem to be much debris, though, but it may just be vaporized by the Mobile Suit's compact reactors failing catastrophically.
- Super Dimension Fortress Macross was also another big user of the spherical explosions, in or out of space.
- Planetes, being on the hard end of the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness, averts this. When a space center on the Moon where a giant spacecraft engine is constructed blows up, an immense cone of ejected matter is shown, in a realistic and terrifying way.
- In the DCAU tie-in Justice League comic story "Disarmed", Green Lantern evicts an alien bomb off of Earth, making a comment that he never gets used to how quiet explosions are in space. The explosion is represented primarily as a sphere of light (with pointy bits on the compass points).
- Mostly averted in Bait and Switch and Red Fire, Red Planet, a pair of Star Trek Online fics with Character Overlap. Ships that suffer a warp core or fusion bottle breach tend to be described as going up in a "retina-searing white flash" or something similar. Other destroyed vessels tend to leave large chunks of themselves behind, such as a Jem'Hadar attack ship that had its front half blown away by a shot to the torpedo magazine.
- In Two Thousand One A Space Odyssey when Bowman blows the explosive bolt hatch, the sound of the explosion is cut short by the decompression.
- In Silent Running, nuclear explosions in space are just circular flashes that fade away.
- Shown accurately once (except for the sound) in The Fifth Element when Korben blows off the docking bay doors to escape the hotel, otherwise, used in every other explosion in the movie.
- In Apollo 13, the explosion apparently quite accurately depicted the real life event.
- Done mostly correctly at the tail end of The Avengers. The nuke that Iron Man steers into the enemy mothership detonates as an expanding sphere, with no Planar Shockwave or other Hollywood contrivance. Not quite right, but closer than Hollywood usually gets.
- Most of Star Wars plays this trope quite straight, but in the climactic assault on the first Death Star, one unfortunate Y-Wing is shown continuing to move as it is destroyed.
- Also done correctly with the orbital cascade effect in Gravity.
- Interstellar only has one explosion, which is justified as it is fueled by oxygen form inside the Endurance and realistically is soundless observed from another spacecraft.
- Star Trek movies repeatedly have played this trope very straight.
- In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, it's revealed early on that the sixth planet in a star system exploded, causing a shockwave that knocked the fifth planet off it's orbit, turning it into a desolate wasteland. Mike Okuda points out in the commentary that shockwaves do not propagate through the vacuum of space.
- In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Praxis' explosion produces a planar shockwave that knocks everyone on the bridge of the Excelsior out of their chairs, those sleeping out of their beds, etc. As with the above example, shockwaves do not propagate through the vacuum of space. This is handwaved by Commander Valtaine referring to it as a "sub-space shockwave," though it isn't made entirely clear.
- In Star Trek: Generations, the plot revolves around a missile of sorts that can stop all nuclear fusion within a star. The idea is that without the star's gravity to change its course, the energy ribbon would be redirected to the surface of the planet the villain is on. This, of course, would not produce a shockwave (since, at the risk of being repetitive, shockwaves don't propagate through the vacuum of space), and hence not destroy any of the planets immediately, though the people living in the Veridian system would presumably freeze to death without the heat of their sun, eventually. But because dramatic tension must be maintainted, a shockwave is seen destroying Veridian III.
- In the Honor Harrington series, ships that have their fusion bottle fail just have a "single, eye-searing flash," and then are gone. It's also mentioned that nuclear warheads are only useful as weapons in space if they get a direct hit (which is highly unlikely, though it does happen on occasion), which is why missile weapons had moved on to using bomb-pumped lasers by the start of the series.
- In Matthew Reilly's Area 7, when a space shuttle gets hit by a missile, it simply cracks.
- In the American Robotech novels, explosions in space are always spherical.
- In The City Who Fought, a starship whose drive systems are going critical explodes near the protagonists' space station, and the resulting debris field makes venturing outside extremely hazardous for quite a while.
- The History of the Galaxy series generally tends to describe explosions in space correctly. Usually, the danger is not the explosion itself, but the debris flying from the exploding ship or station in every direction at high speeds.
- In another novel, a hyper-advanced ship (officially classified as a light cruiser but with enough firepower to take out a conventional fleet) is mentioned to be armed to the teeth with nuclear missiles. The author then proceeds to explain that, in space, this really isn't as dangerous as it sounds. With advanced point-defense systems and EM shielding (protecting from nuclear radiation and EMP), a ship can be effectively immune to a nuclear barrage, as nuclear explosions (without any matter to "feed" on or air to move) only have an effective range of a few miles.
- In The Lost Fleet, ships explode in a brief bright flash only in two cases: reactor containment fails, or two ships collide at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light (ships normally maneuver at 10% of c). In both cases, little is left of the ship after the flash. Most ships that are destroyed in battle simply break apart and continue on their original trajectory, as pieces start to move apart.
- In Robert A. Heinlein's Between Planets it is done correctly when Circum-Terra Station was destroyed by a nuclear weapon. The blast was described as a second sun, blazing white, and as an expanding, perfectly geometrical sphere. The story also explicitly states that there would not be a mushroom cloud in the vacuum of space.
- Track (a 1980's action-adventure series by Jerry Ahern). In "Revenge of the Master" a neo-Nazi bomb maker plans to explode a bomb on board the space shuttle, and gives some thought to how the vacuum will affect the explosion.
Live Action TV
- Like every Sci-Fi show, Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis have this. However, when they use nukes, the explosions are at least spherical and without a mushroom cloud.
- In Firefly, damaged ships (such as a derelict freighter blown up by an Alliance cruiser in "Bushwhacked") simply break up, with the broken parts drifting in the trajectory of the ship.
- In Battlestar Galactica, explosions usually die out quickly and fiery explosions (which are caused by oxygen in the ships that blow up themselves - the reason why Cylon raiders hardly ever blow up but just disintegrate mostly) appear 'smeared' by velocity. Also, nuclear explosions do appear mostly as 'just flashes' as described above, without the trope-ish fireball and/or mushroom clouds.
- A The Far Side strip mocked this trope (and Space Is Noisy). A scientist jumps up in a crowded theater, yelling "Stop the movie! Stop the movie! Explosions don't go 'boom' in a vacuum!"
- Though the visual isn't discussed, explosions in GURPS lose about half of their power when in space due to lack of atmosphere.
- In EVE Online, the explosion effects look pretty much correct according to what is described above. They are slowed down, however, so that the players can savor in the shiny afterglow of the ship they just helped blow up.
- Nobody's perfect, though: Torpedoes still give a great planar shockwave. So do large structures when they go BOOM. Every time a Drone Silo is blown up, a planar shockwave comes with the explosion, free of charge.
- They do get the "Explosion moves on original trajectory at original velocity" bit, at least. Sadly, the same can't be said for the wreck that's left behind, though that's so you don't have to go chasing it down when you want to loot it.
- Star Fox games do this as well, with ships mostly breaking apart after being hit or the classic "BOMB" item going in a perfect sphere.
- Slyly justified in the early PC game Elite. The manual explained that when a ship or similar explodes in space, as well as the flash it produces a burst of radio waves which, hitting your communicator, make a sound just like an explosion.
- While Dead Space games gets the workings of gravity and vacuum right most of the time, in the second game there is a curious exception. In a zero-gravity area (with oxygen) there is a large, roaring fire. Despite the lack of gravity, the flames are reaching "upwards", instead of expanding in all directions.
- In Sword of the Stars nukes produce a small spherical blast in space, and the only other explosives are acid and nanite bombs that leave a sphere-shaped corrosive cloud. And when used in Orbital Bombardment nukes produce a sphere again but substantially bigger.
- When ships are destroyed, their parts continue to travel in the same direction for a few seconds before they blow up. This is even true of Liir ships which, technically, don't move in the Newtonian sense but teleport millions of times per second. Thus, when Liir ships are destroyed, their wrecks should stay relatively at rest.
- Back in the day the two Superpowers conducted several series of high altitude nuclear explosions that resulted in fireballs being as cool if not cooler than anything Hollywood could produce well into the age of CGI. Just another example of something that's just as easy to get wrong as right. It should be noted that these explosions were still in the atmosphere, just very high up.
- Nuclear explosions in space would cause damage in a very different way than nuclear explosions in an atmosphere. A nuclear explosion in a vacuum produces a bright flash, a burst of neutrons, and a burst of intense radiation that rapidly declines in effect due to the Inverse Square Law. The actual damage to a target would come from the radiation and neutrons, which would fry the crew plus any electronics, and leave the target highly radioactive.
- A faulty spy satellite is said to have been shot down with a missile by the US Navy, to prevent it from becoming a hazard. Note that most satellites are actually still within the atmosphere. (GPS satellites and the geosynchronous communication satellites used by everyday fixed dish antennas are two notable exceptions.)