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Airplanes during atmospheric flight bank (incline towards the side of the turn), because to turn to one side, you must change the lift force to have a horizontal component (illustration from the same Wikipedia article):

angled lift + downward weight = centripetal force

However, in a vacuum, you do not have a lift force in the first place. Therefore, banking would not cause your spaceship to turn, unless you have special turning thrusters that for some reason are angled slightly DOWN from your plane, AND to the side:

downward-pointing thrusters

However, the Millennium Falcon always banks when it turns in vacuum, despite seemingly NOT having such "sideways and downwards" aimed turning thrusters.

WHY? In-Universe explanation, if exists, is preferred.

enter image description here

NOTE: the question is about the Millennium Falcon but as noted in the comments, the issue is equally applicable to small starfighters as well.

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    Same reason TIE Fighters and X-Wings bank. It looks cool, even though Space Does Not Work That Way – thedaian Dec 1 '11 at 3:35
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    @jwenting "many experts hold that space fighters are the worst way to fight a war in space" - got any sources? I'm curious to learn more. – Chad Levy Dec 1 '11 at 9:21
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    @jwenting - cite, or I'm making that a new question!! :) Seriously, this sounds SLIGHTLY suspicious - there are other advantages to small size (harder to hit, especially with energy weapons, better acceleration due to low mass, less of a resource loss when destroyed just off the top of my head). – DVK-on-Ahch-To Dec 1 '11 at 10:30
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    @DVK For a source, how about this: projectrho.com/rocket/spacegunexotic.php#fighters – thedaian Dec 1 '11 at 13:31
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    So they can see where they're going...? – Michael Haren Dec 1 '11 at 17:36

14 Answers 14

78

In Universe:

Those who have played the Star Wars Flight Sims (X-Wing, Tie-Fighter) are very familiar with the concept. Most fighters turn left/right much slower then they can pull up/down. As a result it was easiest to chase a fast target by positioning the target above the cockpit using z rotation. This way you get maximum maneuverability and maximum visibility (as most fighters had a limited vision below the ship due to the cockpit shape). The practice was common because turning the ship left or right would naturally result in a small amount of z rotation and because of the previously mentioned speed boost in pulling up vs turning left or right.

The reason it was faster to pull up, as was explained to me and has been noted in this page already, is because the cost of installing and using very strong thrusters for every desired rotation is very high. By only having one set of powerful thrusters the fighter would still have the maximum maneuverability it needed, while keeping the cost and weight of the unit down. As has also been mentioned, many of these fighters (and space ships) were designed for space and atmospheric flight. Since the ships were not designed with natural upward thrust (most fighters and space ships did not have wings) they required large thrusters to maintain altitude. Many freighters, like the Millennium Falcon, where designed for vertical take off and landing, which can be seen on Tatooine in Episode 4. This reduced the space needed for take off and landing, removed the need for wheels while the ship is decelerating, and removed the need for separate storage and landing locations (the Millennium Falcon lands in its storage bay). Like freighters, fighters are also designed for vertical take off and landings so they can land anywhere (like a swamp or in their storage space on the flight deck) and so they did not need wheels which would make the ship larger (easier to hit), heaver (less maneuverability), and more problematic (how to land if a tire has popped or there is debris on the runway).

So in short, the reason the Millennium Falcon always banks turns is so the turn can be made faster, using the (larger) vertical thrusters.

  • This seems like a common mechanic in space sims. Both in Freelancer and Elite, you turn quicker on the vertical axis, so you naturally develop a habit of manually banking in turns to decrease your turn radius (and since you can't side-slip, you bank even stronger than you typically would in atmosphere). Besides, as pointed out in the other answer, it's better for visibility. Even if you installed screens on the floor, it would still make sense to keep the action center-forward, so as to keep you from needing to look back and forth between the action and your controls. – Wolfie Inu Oct 8 '15 at 4:50
  • @WolfieInu This was not an issue in Descent and I do not remember it in Wing Commander, so I guess it depends on the game. Personally, I would prefer to track side to side, as the console takes up the bottom of the screen, meaning I have more horizontal space to track my target in then vertical. Of course the example was for justification, so... – Trisped Oct 8 '15 at 18:02
  • I think George Lucas owes @Trisped a beer for coming up with a very plausible explanation to cover George's poor physics knowledge. – Austin Jun 29 '16 at 4:00
  • In addition to vertical thrusters, the Millenium Falcon also has a “repulsorlift drive” (as do most Star Wars ships). This helps with VTOL take-off/landing, atmospheric reentry, and maneuvering (e.g. banking). Sources: An old Star Wars technical diagrams book, this reentry thread, another thread on TIE fighters, and Wookiepedia (albeit “Legends”). – Slipp D. Thompson Sep 30 '16 at 10:34
  • Also, the Wookiepedia article says that “Repulsorlifts only worked within a gravity well”. Whether or not the centrifugal force of the ship banking counts as a gravity well in the Star Wars Universe is debatable. – Slipp D. Thompson Sep 30 '16 at 10:39
74

I have two reasons that work not only within the Star Wars universe, but our own as well:

Visibility.

When driving any vehicle, it's important for the driver to watch the line of motion to make sure that there aren't obstacles in the path. As the control panel takes up most of the forward display, banking around a turn gives significantly better visibility towards any approaching matter. This can also be seen in the exaggerated banking used to enter the cave on the asteroid.

Compensation for acceleration dapeners

It should be noted that although the Millennium falcon has artificial gravity, it only partially dampens its own acceleration; this can be seen when R2D2 fixed the Millennium Falcon and it jumped into lightspeed without warning.

When an object accelerates around a curve, the force of the acceleration points inwards toward the center. If you ride in a car and make a turn, you feel a force on the outside of the curve in addition to gravity. This effect would not go away completely in space, due to the effects of artificial acceleration dampening.

The optimal solution for both cases is for the normal vector of the craft's gravity to turn toward the direction of the acceleration, which is what banking is.

41

Lucas, when making the original Star Wars series, used combat footage from WWII air combat as the basis from which they derived all the space battles between small ships. They knew full well that such movement as banking was not necessary in a space battle. But at the time that Star Wars was made, the science fiction genre was still in it's infancy as far as the public at large was concerned. They thought that most people who went to see the movie would think that it looked weird that these ships were maneuvering in a manner that was not familiar and comfortable to them. It's much the same reason that on Star Trek you always see ships moving on the same "plane" relative to each other in a special effects shot even though there is no up or down in space.

They were also under a great deal of pressure to get the effects shots done, so in many cases they just took that WWII combat footage and translated those exact shots straight across. There were some extras included in the special edition VHS and the DVD editions of the original trilogy that went into this in some depth, even showing side by side comparisons of the WWII footage and the Star Wars footage together and you could see where an exact WWII shot was replicated into the Star Wars shot.

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    Yeah he ripped off everything he could get his hands on and NOW he has the cheek to sue people making fan films! – JamesRyan Dec 2 '11 at 16:05
  • Is there any sort of reference confirming these? If so, it's angling for being an accepted answer. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Dec 2 '11 at 18:56
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    @JamesRyan: "Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal". If the fan films are in the SW universe, rather than being parodies or wholly transformative ideas, then it is perfectly within his rights to be that cheeky. Dick move, but still his dick move to make. – Merlyn Morgan-Graham Dec 5 '11 at 14:55
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    The combat coming from WWII is talked about in the making of features on the DVDs. – JamesRyan Dec 5 '11 at 17:05
  • Not an in-universe answer as requested by OP, but very interesting nonetheless. I heard that many of the sequences were inspired by WW2 films, but had no idea that there were direct shot replicas. Makes sense though! Do you have a source? It would be interesting to see. – Wolfie Inu Oct 8 '15 at 4:45
20

It's a simple question of believability. There's a lot of stuff that is done in Sci Fi movies that only happens the way it does so that the audience will understand and recognize what's happening. The average viewer expects a flying vehicle to bank to turn, so the flying vehicle banks to meet that expectation, even without any scientific or engineering reason for it. Likewise, explosions in vacuum are silent, but just consider how many explosions you've heard that theoretically took place in the vacuum of space.

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    Knowing Lucas, I wouldn't be surprised if there is a retcon/in-Universe explanation. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Dec 1 '11 at 3:49
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    Agree. Try to imagine a non-banking turn. It looks rather strange. Kind of like Automan's car here: youtube.com/… – HNL Dec 1 '11 at 4:27
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    Although they did non-banking turns quiet beautifully with the Starfurys in Babylon 5 – Xantec Dec 1 '11 at 4:34
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    And with the Vipers in the newer Battle Star Galactica. – Xantec Dec 1 '11 at 5:02
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    the vipers in the original Galactica were constantly banking and yawing – jwenting Dec 1 '11 at 9:57
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The directional thrusters wouldn't have to be in the rear of the ship but really that point doesn't matter. Considering that the Falcon can fly in atmosphere it's conceivable that the Y-axis thrusters are rather powerful, in order to control ascents and descents, which would give it a tighter turn radius on that axis. Add to that fact that the main engines in the back likely have very little sideways thrust capability, instead focusing nearly all of the output in a straight line out the back of the ship so it can go faster (it can do the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs remember).

Combined these factors would make it fastest to perform high speed turns by rolling the ship on the Z-axis (around the length-wise axis of the ship) and then pointing the nose "up" or "down" in the direction you want to go. From the point of view of an external camera stuck on the original orientation it would appear that the ship was banking in space.

  • Similar to what I was thinking... my thoughts were more along the line that exposing two sets of maneuvering engines (side and bottom\top) would help to maximize surface area of the available thrusters. This depends on the layout of the thrusters, obviously. And, for that matter, how they work, whether they obey Newtonian behavior (doubtful since virtually nothing else in Star Wars does once you get past the obvious) or Star Wars own special brand of microgravity celestial mechanics. – erdiede Dec 1 '11 at 4:59
  • Nitpick on the Kessel run: that uses hyperspace engines, which are quite different than sublight. The Falcon is one of the fastest ships in hyperspace, but as I recall, not for sublight. – Kevin Dec 1 '11 at 5:24
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    @Xantec - no offense but doesn't anyone bother to go to in-Universe sources before speculating? Falcon, like most SW ships, uses repulsorlifts for planetary gravity wells!!! – DVK-on-Ahch-To Dec 1 '11 at 10:36
  • @DVK sorry, I have a tendency to just logically think my way through a problem first and then look up additional resources if I can't figure it out. – Xantec Dec 1 '11 at 13:05
  • +1 for Kessel run mention. Important to keep that in mind. – geerlingguy Dec 1 '11 at 17:36
10

In-universe:

  • Though the rules of maneuverability in space are different than in an atmosphere, it would be logical to design control systems for spaceflight (and especially space combat) that would mirror the control system of an atmospheric craft, on which pilots would have gotten their first flight experience (as atmospheric craft would be more forgiving of failure than a spacecraft).

  • Many ships, including the Millenium Falcon, are designed for BOTH atmospheric and space maneuvering. Again, it makes sense to make the controls for both maneuvering systems (which would be quite different) appear to work the same.

  • Reactionary control systems (thrusters) that had the same size/power of thruster everywhere would naturally result in different X/Y/Z-axis rotations rates, based on the shape of the craft. Specifically, the rate of movement is a combination of the distribution of mass along each of the axes, and the length of each axis allowing thrusters to gain mechanical advantage in torque. The Falcon would probably pitch faster than anything else, as that's the longest dimension and thus the thrusters can be placed for maximum advantage. Rolling would likely be next best as the moment of inertia would be similar, while the width of the ship is the next longest to its length. Yawing would probably be the worst, because despite being able to use thrusters placed at the extremes of both of the long axes, around this axis the ship has the highest moment of inertia. Someone piloting this ship would thus use the maneuvering thrusters to their greatest advantage, by rolling to place their destination above them and then pulling up.

  • RCSes that had DIFFERENT thruster powers for each axis would likely focus on the axes the pilot was most used to maneuvering with, while compensating for axes in which the ship had an extreme disadvantage due to shape. Back to the first two points, a pilot who learned on a Skyhopper or other atmospheric craft would probably focus on pitch and roll.

Out of universe:

The original Star Wars Death Star battle was patterned heavily after a real-world attack, the "Dambusters' Raid", which required slow-flying, less maneuverable light bombers to negotiate a valley leading up to the dam, at which point they would aim for the base of the dam or other structural weak points. This was while trying to deal with far more nimble fighter craft getting in behind the bombers and chewing them up. As such, the designs of the ships in the Star Wars universe, and the way they flew, were patterned on real-world aerodynamically-maneuverable planes, because the drama of the real-world raid would be lost if an X-wing could cut its engines and spin 180* to fire backwards at the TIE fighters while still moving in the same direction it had been pointed previously.

Also, as an audience, we're used to seeing craft identified as "fighters" maneuvering mostly by rolling and pitching. You gotta give the audience what they expect, unless your aim is to specifically give them something they don't expect (as in the more real-world maneuvering capabilities of, say, a Babylon 5 Starfury; there are several scenes where the intent of the writers/director is to surprise the viewer with how the craft can maneuver, mirroring the surprise of the pilot who's just seen the Starfury go from in their sights to behind them lining up a shot).

  • It's also reasonably possible that pilots in-universe are trained with an expectation of frequent in-atmosphere battles, and tactics that would not work in-atmosphere could be dangerous to learn unless someone is truly exceptionally skilled. TIE fighters are problematic enough in-atmosphere without pilots' instincts making them go for maneuvers that will snap the wings off. – Random832 Dec 1 '11 at 17:20
7

TV Tropes has a great write up on the real reason which is basically artistic licence.

After all real battles in space would look like vessels which appear stationary firing weapons with bolts that are too fast to register slowly damaging each other. A star-fighter that intersected the ion trail of another star-fighter would likely experience impacts that rival small nuclear explosions(because that is basically what they would be) that would tear it apart.

In Universe(IMO made up as an afterthought for the novels):

Each craft has Inertial Dampeners, Stabilizers, and one or more AstroCompass.

The Astrocompass provides the ships computer/astromech with telemetry. There are setting in each ship to keep the trajectory on the plane set by the pilot. In the EU there are several places where pilots of X-wings talk about making adjustments to their plane or where the plane was off causing them to miscalculate... etc.

One of the things the stabilizers do is help to maintain the plane. Most ships have adjustment thrusters to change the ships direction. But the same inertial dampener that keeps the insane g-forces that pilots of the vessels pull from crushing them also prevents inertia from maintaining speed and rotation from the thrust. These forces create the yaw effects.

Fighter craft also have Etheric Rudders which allow them to maneuver much like they would in atmosphere.

2

I agree with xantec that the y-axis thrusters could be more powerful, and would like to add it could be partially because it's easier for the artificial gravity control to maintain constant g in (more or less) 1 direction, and any that the ag couldn't compensate for or any lag in the compensation would feel more natural and be easier to compensate for while sitting or standing. Otherwise they would be thrown into a wall any time they turned.

2

I believe @Trisped has the best answer with respect to an in-universe explanation.

However, one overlooked additional possibility is the maximum g-forces that human/alien physiology can endure. Direction matters when it comes to experiencing high-g loads. Unfortunately I couldn't find anything about the effects of transverse (left-right) acceleration on the human body. Most studies seem to be on vertical (aligned with spinal axis) or horizontal (front-back).

Even so, the reason could be as simple as seat design. By banking, the spacecraft will exert the acceleration on the pilots in the vertical direction rather than the transverse direction. Ever been in a packed car that takes a sharp turn at a high speed? Everyone in the back seat ends up squished against the person on the outside. Now imagine if the bank was proportional to the ratio of acceleration/gravity, everyone would be pushed nicely down into their seat instead of leaning on the person next to them. If spacecraft are designed to bank into turns, the seats don't have to be designed to allow the pilots and passengers to withstand high-g loads from ALL directions - just two. Normal seat designs already provide stability in two directions: vertical (seat bottom) and horizontal (seat back). By going with this design path, the need to develop a complex (and possibly movement restrictive) restraint system to allow the pilots to withstand transverse acceleration is eliminated.

Then again, if we're assuming that the ship's artificial gravity can magically compensate for all these inertial loads on the pilots, then none of this matters. However, there's no way for AG to compensate for this without defying the laws of physics (at least according to our primitive human understanding of physics). AG acting in a steady state may be plausible - I can buy that in a universe that has tractor beams. However, for the passengers to stay in the same relative position within the ship, they have to be subject to all the acceleration the ship experiences as well.

1

Han Solo, and Lando, probably do long runs on autopilot, most of their time piloting is probably spent taking off and landing, both of which involve moving thru atmosphere. Under stress, the pilots revert to their training and experience, most of which is probably in atmosphere, and fly in space the same way they do planetside, naturally steering the Falcon into a banked turn, as practiced in atmosphere

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    Not a bad explanation, but a lot of assumptions there. Is there anything you can find that might strengthen this? – Möoz Jan 10 '18 at 4:18
0

+1 for "It looks cool on-screen" and +1 for "We are used to seeing aircraft banking to turn". But even if it's because the more powerful manoeuvring thrusters point upwards, it is still all nonsense.

The reality of turning is space is best illustrated by the old video game "Asteroids", where the manoeuvring thrusters only rotate the ship about its centre, leaving it pointing a different way but still moving in the original direction due to Newton's First Law. Firing the main engines doesn't immediately make the ship move off in the direction it's pointing, because the original velocity doesn't just go away. Instead, the ship goes in a direction that is a compromise between where it was going before and where it's pointing now. The longer the main engines are firing, the closer the direction it moves gets to the direction it is pointing.

So if I'm moving West and turn the ship to point North then fire my main engines, I start to change direction towards West-North-West, then a bit later I will be moving North-West, then later still I will be moving North-North-West. I will never be moving totally northwards unless I turn my ship a bit towards the East and use my main engines to eliminate my westward drift.

So most space dogfighting would be sideways, like rally cars on a muddy track.

If you want to turn your ship in a semi-circle, you have to keep its nose pointing at the centre of the circle. If you are chasing another ship around the semi-circle and trying to fire at it, having nose guns pointing at the centre of the circle is no use at all! So X-wing and Tie fighter guns would rarely be pointing at their targets. Only ships with movable guns (like the Millenium Falcon) would have much chance of scoring any hits.

So the Millenium Falcon banks to turn simply to keep the dogfights looking like the kind of dogfights we are used to.

0

I have a very plausible explanation for this without resorting to "it looks good in cinema for space ships to roll and bank" or putting imaginary antigravity y-axis thrusters that are in no way ever visible in the movies.

You can actually physically see what I'm talking about by looking at the Falcon exhaust itself.

If you look carefully at the top and bottom of the huge ass falcon thruster you will see a series of disconnected plates. These are thrust vectoring plates similar to what's on the F-22 raptor! These plates direct the thrust of the Millenium Falcon either up or down! If all the plates point upward the falcon will climb. If half the plates point up while the other half points down the falcon will roll! Due to the fact that there are no thrust vectoring plates on the sides of the exhaust the falcon can ONLY roll or bank. Thrust vectoring works in space as well!

While it's a mystery how other crafts in the star wars universe turn yaw and bank the Millenium Falcon is the only one where the physical structure of the exhaust actually explains the way it flies! This is the most elegant explanation imo!

0

In order to walk around the ship that has no known centrifugal force creating gravity it is then a machine or device causing artificial gravity and thus anything in the ship would act as if being on a planet. Also if traveling in a sort of parabolic state that can relate to the motion of a planet and is caught in the gravitational pull of a planet as well as the ship having artificial gravity then there would be two separately gravitational for estimates acting on those aboard the ship. Because of this it would be fair to say that rolling, banking, pitch, yaw having to separate gravitational points may make the g-forces seem even more erratic.

Also, the mass of an object (such as the Death Star) promotes gravity. The larger the mass the more gravity things have; even the Great Pyramids have a gravitational pull. Non related from theory gravity has a direct reflection on the traverse of time no longer becoming linear or in one direction.

0

Adding a separate answer I felt was necessary because the 2 dimensional view is irrelevant. There is not just an x and y axis there is also z giving a 3rd dimension and I would have to research but, the nav or navigation device needs to arrest all movement in space befor the the jump to light speed so that the ship travels on one line and is not drifting with yaw, roll or pitch. Also, it seems for the sake of hyperspace the main thrusters must be facing directly at the 6 in clock terms for hyperspace to be accomplished. After all as Han Solo said you would have a really bad day if the nav system did not compute a safe trajectory and you fly into a star or supernova. Thanks for the consideration.

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