(This is Part 7. There are previous installments; this one is a digression from something I said in Part 6, though you can also start from the beginning at Part 1)
In Part 6, I said:
The theoretical absolute best we can do with rockets is if we can get the exhaust velocity up to the speed of light. This means our exhaust will be pure radiation, that we are somehow powering a huge-ass laser with 100% efficiency, since that's the only way we get all of the exhaust going the same direction. And, boy howdy, do you not want to be following along directly behind,…
Which leads rather directly to this:
The best possible rocket engine and the best possible directed energy weapon are exactly the same thing.
Remember this the next time you're watching Star Wars, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, etc. All of those little fighter ships where the engine is distinct from the guns? Those scenes where they're accelerating forward, closing with the enemy, firing forward with everything they've got?
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. No military contractor worth its salt is going to waste resources mounting a second gun on a ship when there's already this totally effective and somewhat expensive first gun.
Conversely, if you've got a phaser/laser/gamma-ray-laser that can do real damage from a distance, then most likely that is your engine. If you're in a universe where rockets are your only form of propulsion, you are definitely not going to be wasting resources on a 2nd engine. It's going to be correspondingly expensive to fire, too. Nor will you get off that many shots before you're hurtling away.
What you need to do is arrange to be headed towards your target with as much velocity as you can manage. Then, when you're really close, you flip around and shove the throttle to maximum. It'll look exactly like you're landing on your target (modulo the small matter that you'll want to not be too predictable about it, see below). Best if, once you've killed all of your relative velocity, you can whip out some (really strong) tethers to attach yourself with before continuing to fire, so that you can be expending as much energy as possible on your target vs. propelling yourself away.
Of course, if you actually can get that close you're probably still better off with a burrowing torpedo that can blow up your target from the inside.
In fact, I'm rather having trouble shaking the conclusion that directed energy weapons aren't at least as stupid as rockets. On the other hand, if you're stuck in a universe where rockets are all you have, then so be it. Swords, planted bombs, and bioweapons are all very nice if you can get close enough to use them, but sometimes you just can't.
Also, to be sure, planet and asteroid-based gamma-ray-laser cannons will be a different story. They'll have room for arbitrarily huge reserves of antimatter compared with what you'll have available in your fighter ship, and the momentum consequences of firing off huge blasts will be negligible for them.
Suffice it to say, you'll want to stay well out of range of those. Except for the small problems that,
- being lasers, they'll have lots and lots of range, and
- the moment you stop firing your own engine for any length of time, your trajectory becomes immediately predictable; figure by the time we have practical antimatter distilleries, we'll have the software for this worked out just fine, too
- given the stupidity of rockets, you won't be able to be constantly firing your engine for any length of time before running out of fuel
So, good luck with that.
Granted, if I were going up against an entire planet, I'd probably want to arrange for a dinosaur-killing asteroid to do the dirty work for me. Hide an armada behind it to take out anyone who tries to come near to divert it.
Which then means that any sensible planet is going to have an entire inventory of asteroids of various sizes lined up at its Lagrange points to be able to deal with any such threat, at which point I'd then concentrate my efforts on subverting the folks in charge of the asteroid inventory.
Or maybe just taking a trip down to the planet itself, sneaking in, and detonating the huge antimatter reserve where the phaser cannon is located.
Of course, if everybody has sufficient resources to be distilling out the insane quantities of antimatter needed to be fighting these battles, I'd have to wonder what the hell they're fighting over. Not that this would be the first time in human history where a war got started for completely stupid reasons (cf. WWI)
And round and round we go.
(and there's a Part 8 now, where we move on to Something Completely Different)