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Website / Atomic Rockets

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Atomic Rockets is a website by Winchell Chung, intended as a resource for science fiction writers. The site contains information on a large number of science fiction tropes, as well as reams of technical data on the scientific basis (or lack of it) for those tropes.

Tropes discussed and analysed:

  • Applied Phlebotinum: The introduction discusses this in various flavours:
    • Handwavium: Defined as anything that outright breaks physics.
    • Unobtainium: Used in the classic sense; i.e. something that's beyond modern technology but still obeys real-world physics.
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    • Macguffinite: The reason you're out in space in the first place. Usually some form of mineable resource.
  • Artificial Gravity: Various methods are discussed, including Centrifugal Gravity and classic handwavium.
  • Cool Starship: Most of the technical information is focused around creating these. As is pointed out in the introduction, the ship is usually the centre of attention in Space Opera.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Discouraged, as are many soft-SF tropes, but Chung's advice if you have to have it is to follow consistent rules.
  • Starship Luxurious: Not even. Most "Scifi" ships in movies and on television, (we're looking at you Star Trek.), have massive hallways and large open spaces more in line with ocean going vessels, particularly passenger ships. (Military vessel hallways are in fact narrow and not so big. Especially on submarines.)
  • Stealth in Space: Chung is of the school that believes this is highly unrealistic, if not outright impossible, as all that waste heat from the ship's power source and crew has to go somewhere.
  • Technobabble: Chung naturally warns against this, but advises readers to A) keep it consistent and B) include just enough real science that an untrained reader would 'stub their toe' into thinking that it's plausible.
  • Time Dilation: The site includes relativistic equations, for writers who want to depict this trope.
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  • Writers Cannot Do Math: averting this is the entire point of the site.

Tropes used:

  • Awesome, but Impractical: Many of the weapons and systems the site discusses sound awesome in theory, but are substantially less so in practice:
    • Standard nukes in space warfare. While extremely powerful, a combination of the inverse square law and the effects of the vacuum (there's no blast wave in space) means that even a large nuke in the megaton range will fail to deal notable damage against an armored target unless detonated at a ridiculously close distance (single digit kilometers or less), which is impractical given how fast ships can be moving relative to the missile carrying the nuke (not to mention the missile's limited delta-v budget). The fact that explosions deal damage omnidirectionally also means that the energy per square meter is quite low even if you do manage a point-blank detonation. Better to go with a laser, railgun, or shaped charge, which can obtain absurdly higher energy densities even with a fraction of the total energy, which is what matters for penetrating the enemy's defenses.
    • Bomb-pumped lasers. It doesn't get much more awesome than focusing a nuclear explosion into a laser beam. The problem? Only a tiny fraction of the warhead’s X-rays, which are emitted in all directions, are intercepted by the metal tube that focuses them into a laser. From those, a tiny fraction of that fraction is converted into coherent X-rays. In the end, only about a millionth of the bomb's energy is actually converted into a laser - and that laser is still limited in range by the wide divergence of the beam. On top of that, it works for just a microsecond, wastes an expensive nuclear bomb, and each shot destroys its surroundings by detonating. It's potentially useful as a one-shot point-defense weapon for taking down thin-skinned ICBMs, but that's about it (and even in that role, it's outclassed by reactor-pumped lasers for civilizations advanced enough to have them).
    • Deuterium-tritium fusion power. At 340 terajoules per kilogram, it's one of the most powerful fusion combinations (only exceeded slightly by deuterium-helium3 fusion at 353 terajoules per kilogram, and by proton-proton chain reactions at 645 terajoules per kilogram), so it'd make a great way to propel your spaceship, right? Well, not exactly. See, it produces 80% of its energy as neutrons, which heat your spacecraft and don't provide propulsion unlike soft X-rays; thus the energy you can actually use is far less than the total energy, and you have to space out your drive components hundreds of feet from where the reaction happens so that the reaction doesn't literally melt them. By contrast, Deuterium-helium3 is just awesome without the impracticality, as it only gives off 5% of its energy as neutrons. Deuterium-deuterium is the Boring, but Practical method: it's almost as wasteful as deuterium-tritium and produces about a quarter of the energy per kilogram, with 66% of its energy being lost to neutrons, but the fact that it only requires deuterium and nothing else gives it effectively infinite fuel (tritium is extremely rare, while deuterium is plentiful in oceans and can be widely synthesized by a Type I civilization).
  • Quote Overdosed: An estimated half of the text on the site is inside a quotation. This is mainly due to the writer repeating parts of books as examples or copying a discussion others had about the topic.
  • Shown Their Work: The technical information, including mathematical formulae, is (mostly) accurate. The writer himself admits that he isn't a real rocket scientist or anything and is not a good source, so everyone should probably check something else as well. He does link to documents written by actual rocket scientists, though, so you're free to check those out if you want to see how he reached his conclusions.

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