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In many movies and TV series (Star Wars, Star Trek, etc.), we see space battles in which spaceships miss their targets. I can't understand how such advanced beings can simply "miss", but perhaps there's some justification for this.

Often these same spaceships can travel to just outside a planet belonging to another star traveling faster than the speed of light. They seem to have advanced aiming technology.

Question: When shooting laser cannons etc. from spaceships, why do advanced beings miss their targets?

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    Because if advanced beings are good at aiming, then also advanced beings must be good at avoiding. And in most movies I can recall they are still people targeting the guns, they are not automatic.
    – TK-421
    Oct 4 '19 at 5:59
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    Because there is no action or drama when a computer calculates, via advanced space mathemagics, exact perfect trajectories to hit enemy ships, after a captain says ‘computer target, lock and fire’ while drinking a space mocha.
    – morbo
    Oct 4 '19 at 8:30
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    For the hard-scifi enthusiasts, you might check out the Space War Combat site. Almost as addictive as tvtropes. In reality, ships in these shows go so fast that a bag of kitty litter dropped out the window has so much "bang" that explosive compounds are superfluous. ( projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/… )
    – Yorik
    Oct 8 '19 at 18:22
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J Michael Straczinski pointed out that in most space battles (at least in Babylon 5), seeing the ships up close to each other like that is kind of a dramatisation to make it look good on screen, and that in reality, space ships would be so far away from each other that they wouldn't even be able to see each other.

This goes some way to explaining how they could miss, or how counter measures would be better able to make them miss.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the bridge crew sometimes give the distance of another ship from the Enterprise and it's usually a lot further than it appears on screen, sometimes in the hundreds or thousands of km IIRC.

Edit

For completeness, the quote from JMS...

http://www.midwinter.com/lurk/guide/042.html

and space combat would be conducted over thousands of kilometers, you probably wouldn't be able to even SEE your opponent at that range, just pick up the enemy ships on your scanners -- you can't do that for TV because you need to have both in frame, hammering each other short-range, to make it work for viewers.

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    Even going back to TOS, there has often been talk of the magnification setting of the main screen making things more clearly visible. Of course that “realism” is often destroyed by exterior shots that seem to show totally different sizes and distances. Oct 4 '19 at 17:36
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    And once distances start getting large, travel speed of the laser is no longer 'instant'. If you aim at something 3 light seconds away, you are seeing where it was 3 seconds ago (light from the target reaching your eyes) and the laser takes an additional 3 seconds to reach the target (and this ignores reflex and decision time; i.e. time required to aim and decide to push the firing button). During all this time, the target may be moving, causing the laser to possibly miss. A laser not only has to hit, it must also stay on the moving target long enough to damage or burn through the target hull. Oct 5 '19 at 6:07
  • Great answer. Distance in the astronautical sense is a great answer. We tend to think of things as Earthbound. But, up in space, the distances can be immense. At a distance of 60 feet, a 1° error in aim causes a 1 foot error in impact point. At 60 miles, 1° error causes missing by a mile. This error would be for a stationary target and a stationary weapon. Compound that with firing a weapon from a moving platform that is actively evading becoming a target itself, at a moving target actively avoiding damage while both are in a vacuum. And, the target is using active countermeasures like shields
    – Dean F.
    Jun 9 '20 at 19:20
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This would be a good question for physics.se
But you are using earth observed behaviour that you extrapolate on galaxy level. On earth you can use laser pointer to set level in a room and be sure that it works (so line from meter to point on the wall is really straight, shortest line).
On space level (or even on earth on thousand of km/miles lenghts) there is no such thing as real physical, easily to achieve straightest line that you could send plasma/laser/protons on.
You have gravity of stars, planets, gases, gravitional waves (that could be ignored in the case of old ST episodes). And you have time. Yes, on earth the light travels kilometres in less than blink of an eye. In cosmos that travel really takes minutes, hours or days.

In ST you can hear "Sir, they are preparing to shot their X". Which means that on Enterpise they just seen that preparation but in fact the protons could already be fired. With a set coordinates (so a places in X,Y,Z where Enterprise was at the moment of firing). So now they have time to change their position assuming that shooter didn't had enough knowledge about Star Fleet Ships ability to change it's position to calculate it in.

Using some earth comparision it would be like avoiding an arrow that have been shot from kilometre away. It's travel is influence by earth moving, winds, angle it have been shot. And it achieving it's target is also influenced by target moving (or not).

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Perhaps their weapons have too large engineering tolerances reducing accuracy/increasing the weapon grouping size i.e. large Minute of Angle while shooting moving targets at long distance. Perhaps the perceived shooting distances are actually much larger than implied. Or somehow a combination of special relativity and varying relative displacement makes projectile speed/aiming very inconsistent (ie. blame the server lag).

Perhaps the defensive countermeasures in play being are bad match up e.g. Perhaps the normal tactics is capital ship on capital ship combat with a strong emphasis on depleting energy shields, where larger of volume fire is prioritised over accuracy due to the shield defensive bubble size.

However, if laser weapons were actually traveling at the speed of light, then plain old startrooper bad aim/poor training is probably to blame.

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Well, I am by no means a Rocket Scientist or Military Strategist but from my perspective I see 3 primary "Types" of weapons that can practically be used in a space combat environment.

Kinetic weapons - Which is to say any non-maneuvering point to point sub speed of light weapon that deals damage either through pure kinetic energy or through some means of volatile payload. These types of weapons in the context of space combat are short range devices, only practical when the distance between the two ships is so close that the ship is unable to evade in the time span between when you see the object being fired and when it arrives. As a sub-light projectile it will be seen well before arrival assuming sufficient distance making getting out of the way a breeze.

Light-Based Weapons - Weapons of this type, unless there is a detectable firing delay, are impossible to evade once spotted as they will have already hit you! But that doesn't mean its a sure thing. Light-based weapons must be fired blind, as in you are firing at where you think the target will be when it hits. Simply flying unpredictably will give these types of weapons an astronomically low chance of hitting unless at close range, or if the target area is saturated in fire covering multiple predicted angles.

Intelligent Weapons - Weapons such as Missiles or anything that is able to maneuver or think on its own fall into this category. These weapons can be fired in anticipation of a fight and set to linger like a cruise missile, or in the expected path of an object, as well as accelerate much faster than a spacecraft. By being able to maneuver and possibly home in on an object the only defense to these objects is by ship based countermeasures.

What it boils down to is one key factor. Distance. Within distances where the speed of light does not factor in then it is a slug fest down to whoever is able to inflict critical damage first(whether that be offensively or defensively with shields/Armour). In situations where the speed of light would factor in then, which is almost every case of space conflict then the the winner will be determined by variables such as Unpredictability of maneuvering, Countermeasures for Active-Tracking weapons, volume of fire and Shipboard Sensor Packages (being able to detect and track enemy ships and weapons and act accordingly)

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    It's a nice full-bodied answer, but can you target (hah!) your information more at the question asked, i.e. why weapons often miss their goals?
    – Joachim
    Oct 8 '19 at 21:06
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The vast distances involved between ship to ship make tracking and targeting a difficult challenge, Even light requires a few seconds to traverse ranges measured in hundreds of thousands of kilometers. For example, if attempting to fire upon a target at the distance of the Moon from the Earth, the image one sees reflects the position of the target slightly more than a second earlier. Thus even a laser would need approximately 1.28 seconds. Given the angles and distances and speeds of moving objects involved, even being off by a fraction of a degree, means your beam can miss by THOUSANDS of miles.

Another factor is not all energy weapons are lasers in scifi. Star Wars lasers aren't laser's they're plasma based projectile throwers (blasters, laser cannons). So they may be even slower than light speed. Star Trek uses "Particle beam" weapon technology (Phasers, disruptors) as such they travel slower than light.

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  • Great answer. Distance in the astronautical sense is a great answer. We tend to think of things as Earthbound. But, up in space, the distances can be immense. At a distance of 60 feet, a 1° error in aim causes a 1 foot error in impact point. At 60 miles, 1° error causes missing by a mile. This error would be for a stationary target and a stationary weapon. Compound that with firing a weapon from a moving platform that is actively evading becoming a target itself, at a moving target actively avoiding damage while both are in a vacuum. And, the target is using active countermeasures like shields
    – Dean F.
    Jun 9 '20 at 19:23
  • Star Wars addressed that circumstance, favoring immense volume of fire instead of precision. That's why they have whole cannon batteries. Real life CIWS weapons must track targets and adjust firing ahead. But in space it's new ball game. Halo addressed the issue with AI's taking over MAC targeting. And different sized missiles fired in swarms. Real naval warfare is approaching science fiction with missiles firing in whole clusters. Missiles will be mass produced commodities in the future, Just you wait. A single ship will carry 500 Missiles but they will cost the same as the missiles today.
    – LazyReader
    Jun 10 '20 at 4:21
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It is used for dramatic effect in movies and tv shows. Often this adds realism to the space combat the way our ape mind sees the space combat. To do the space combat any otherway would look rather boring to us and that is why it is done this way.

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All of these answers are great and insightful. I came to this problem from a different perspective, though. I think misses are the norm and hits are the statical improbability.

Anytime I see a movie or tv show where a character is able to hit more than 25-50% of their targets in a combat situation other than an ambush or sniping, I view it as unrealistic. Other than self-guided munitions, hitting a moving target from a distance is difficult. At a distance of 60 feet, a 1° error in aim on a stationary target causes a 1 foot error in impact point. That is why sniper and precision rifle accuracy and tolerances are measured in minutes of angle. At 60 miles, 1° of error causes missing by a mile.

This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the target is moving in a manner to actively evade getting hit. Compound that further with the fact that the target is actively trying to damage or destroy the shooter. So, the shooter also has to move in a manner to avoid being hit. Compound that even further still by environmental factors affecting each shot (gravitational, electro-magnetic, etc). The speed at which each combatant moves will be another factor. Though, technology can adjust for most of that if the path of the object is consistent or calculable.

And most importantly, the target will most likely be using active countermeasures like shields to deflect or destroy the incoming weapon rounds, beams, or whatever. This would be the more likely scenario. Since, a vehicle traveling at great speeds through space would need some type of protection from ordinary space debris or foreign object damage. Shields on non-combatant vessels would be necessary. The more advanced the beings, the more advanced the shields.

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