A Case for Winged Spacecraft

A short post explaining why I think spaceships with wings can work in a hard sci-fi setting. And I will not be talking about landings here, since wings aren’t crucial for that. Instead I will introduce you to the concept of aerogravity assist.

Not to be confused with aerobreaking, which is a manoeuvre that uses the atmosphere of a planet to slow down a spacecraft. Aerogravity assist uses the atmosphere to speed up instead.

A common manoeuvre in space travel is the gravity assist—using a planets gravity well as a slingshot to deflect your trajectory. The closer you get to the planet, the more your course will be changed. The issue is that you are limited by the planets atmosphere. If you come too close, the drag will significantly reduce your speed and the costs will outweigh the benefits.

Here is where wings come in. You can use the force of lift generated by the atmosphere (by flying inverted in relation to the ground essentially) to increase your deflection angle by even more than you could achieve just by using gravity.

The manoeuvre:

  1. Enter atmosphere upside down.
  2. Pitch nose downward, generating lift.
  3. Flip over upon reaching target exit point.

This leads to a couple of interesting assumptions about the setting:

  • Most planets have an atmosphere. It doesn’t have to be breathable, but it has to be dense enough to create sufficient lift.
  • Quickly changing trajectory is important. This setting is probably full of space pirates and intense chases. Entering an atmosphere is risky, especially if it is corrosive or stormy (like on Venus for instance), so it can be used to get away from pursuit.
  • Control of airspace becomes key. A faction who has air superiority will decide which ships can travel through it (and have the benefit of faster travel).

Winged spacecraft can exist as specialised types of spaceships. For example as interceptors or blockade runners which have to react to a changing situation quickly. Unwinged spacecraft will always be at a disadvantage however when it comes to manoeuvring.

What do you think about winged spacecraft? Can you think of any other ways it affects the setting? Feel free to throw your thoughts in the comments.

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