For Science!4 Science Mistakes Star Wars: Episode VII Needs to FixFor Science! - RSS 2.0
Mistake 3: Space Fighters Use Aerial Flight Dynamics & Tactics
I won't argue over the fact that many Star Wars space vehicles seem designed for atmospheric flight - most do enter atmospheres at some point or another. However, even a vehicle designed for atmospheric flight will not behave the same way in space as it does in air.
Fighter craft in Star Wars visibly bank, or roll, as they turn in space. Why? Airplanes roll when the pilots move the little flaps at the end of their wings (called ailerons). The ailerons on either wing move in opposite directions, decreasing the lift force on one wing and increasing it on the other. One wing raises, the other dips, the aircraft rolls, and the unequal forces being applied to the wings causes a torque which rotates the plane. All of these forces are a result of air resistance. Without air, there is no lift or drag force, and ailerons would have no effect whatsoever.
The dynamics of atmospheric flight are complex due to all these forces. But space flight is so much simpler. The only forces you really need to account for are those issuing from your spacecraft. Thrusters placed around the vessel will impart momentum in any given direction, and there are no appreciable drag forces in space to affect that momentum.
So why do Star Wars spacecraft bank? Because it looks good.
But we can do better. We can be more imaginative with our use of the real dynamics of space flight. Imagine an X-wing chasing down a TIE fighter, when that TIE fighter suddenly spins on its axis and begins firing back at the X-wing while continuing along on its initial direction. Not only is this possible, but there's almost no reason for this to not be a normal occurrence - space is huge, and the risk of getting shot down by the enemy is far greater than the risk of crashing into something while flying in reverse.
Once you've reached your desired speed in space, there's no need to keep your main thruster activated. With no drag forces, you'll keep moving in your initial direction, leaving you free to rotate the "nose" of your ship in any direction. Imagine how many more shots a TIE Fighter can get in on a long, rebel capital ship when it's weapons are pointed at the vessel throughout its entire strafing run. Moreover, once we kick the notions of water- and air-based battle formations and attack maneuvers out the door, we enter a spectacular world of truly three dimensional tactics - see Ender's Game.
Getting the science of space flight correct allows for more imaginative use of tactics and avoids immersion-breaking questions like, "Why did Queen Amidala's ship fly straight into the ring of Trade Federation ships around Naboo, when they could have just avoided the ring entirely?"