Relativistic kill vehicle

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A relativistic kill vehicle (RKV) or relativistic bomb is a hypothetical weapon system sometimes found in science fiction. The details of such systems vary widely, but the key common feature is the use of a massive impactor traveling at a significant fraction of light speed to strike the target. Therefore the weapon would be an extreme example of the real-life concept of a kinetic bombardment.

RKVs have been proposed as a method of interstellar warfare, especially in settings where faster than light travel or sensors are impossible. By traveling near the speed of light, an RKV could substantially limit the amount of early warning detection time. Furthermore, since the destructive effects of the RKV are carried by its kinetic energy, destroying the vehicle near its target would do little to reduce the damage; the cloud of particles or vapor would still be traveling at nearly the same speed and would have little time to disperse. Indeed, some versions of the RKV concept call for the RKV to explode shortly before impact to shower a wide region of space.

As providing terminal guidance for such a high-speed object would likely be difficult, RKVs are usually proposed as a strategic weapon targeted against large and predictable targets such as planets. However, they can still be used against smaller targets like spaceships, by aiming the weapons in the area they are in, and detonating a fuse in advance to shatter the mass into swarms of smaller particles, all traveling at nearly the same speed. This would cover a much larger area, and destroy smaller targets in space. Accelerating a mass to such velocities in the first place will likely require vast amounts of energy and large, unwieldy accelerators.

An RKV could theoretically be launched using any of the spacecraft propulsion techniques that are capable of accelerating starships to relativistic velocities, such as antimatter rockets, Bussard ramjet systems, or nuclear pulse propulsion (see also relativistic rockets). Since an RKV would be unmanned, higher accelerations could be used (though with most propulsion methods high acceleration may not be the most efficient approach).

In some science fiction smaller relativistic projectiles can sometimes be found depending on the technologies imagined in any particular scenario. In the movie Eraser, for example, characters used man-portable "gauss rifles" that were able to fire bullets at relativistic velocities.[1] Man-portable weapons of this type would have extreme issues with reaching such high speeds over such a short distance; to reach 1% of light speed over the length of a one-meter accelerator would require 4.5 · 1012 m/s2 (or over 450 billion g) of acceleration. Space-based RKVs have the advantage of being able to accelerate over a vastly longer distance and period of time.

Calculating energy content[edit]

Newton's formula for kinetic energy, given as \begin{matrix}\frac{1}{2}\end{matrix} m v^2, is only an approximation for the kinetic energy of an object, reasonably accurate for speeds well below c, approximately 3 × 108 m s−1. For higher speeds, Einstein's formula for kinetic energy, Ek, must be used.

E_k = \gamma m c^2 - m c^2 \,

m is the object's mass in kg,
c is the speed of light in m s−1,
\gamma is the Lorentz factor, given by:

\gamma = \frac{1}{\sqrt{1-\frac{v^2}{c^2}}}

Where v is the velocity of the object in question.

Therefore, expanded the equation is:

E_k = m c^2 \left( \frac{1}{\sqrt{1-\frac{v^2}{c^2}}} -1 \right)


A 1 kg mass traveling at 99% of the speed of light would have a kinetic energy of 5.47×1017 joules. In explosive terms, it would be equal to 132 megatons of TNT or approximately 32 megatons more than the theoretical max yield of Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated. 1 kg of mass-energy is 8.99×1016 joules or about 21.5 megatons of TNT.

Examples of RKVs in fiction[edit]

  • A good example of RKV use in science fiction novels is in Charles R. Pellegrino and George Zebrowski's The Killing Star and Flying to Valhalla, wherein aliens exterminate all human life on Earth by kinetic weapons traveling at relativistic velocities called "R-bombs".
  • Probably the first example of RKV, although that term was not used, was in PK Dick's 1953 novella, The Variable Man. Here the Earth is fighting a war against Proxima Centauri and is constructing a bomb based on relativistic principles.
  • W. Michael Gear's Forbidden Borders trilogy, Requiem for the Conqueror, Relic of Empire and Countermeasures also include RKVs.
  • In A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, the destruction of a human civilization is preceded by an RKV assault.
  • In Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross, attempts are made to obtain the deactivation codes which will stop a destroyed planet's automated RKV retaliation from destroying another world.
  • In David Weber's Honor Harrington series, RKVs are mentioned as a historical weapon, later banned as uncivilized.
  • In Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, a comparatively lightly armed human spaceship uses two drones traveling at relativistic speeds to destroy a much larger enemy battlecruiser and, accidentally, part of a nearby moon.
  • In Michael Scott Rohan's novel Run to the Stars there is a conspiracy plot surrounding human and alien attempts to launch RKVs at each other.
  • In Harry Turtledove's book Homeward Bound, the threat of RKV's is mentioned by The Race as a means of possible interplanetary Mutually Assured Destruction
  • In Larry Niven's 'Known Space' setting (specifically the 'Man-Kzin Wars' shared-world series), RKVs were used as part of the counterattack against the Kzinti occupation of the Alpha Centauri system, striking the planet Wunderland with a combined energy release equaling 12 gigatons of TNT.
  • In issue 18 of Marvel Comics' Supreme Power series, the main character Hyperion uses his indestructible body as an RKV, slamming himself into the far Northern Hemisphere with enough force to generate a one teraton explosion.
  • The Jack Williamson story "Nowhere Near" features robots of a defunct alien race that defend their derelict spaceships with BB sized "micro missiles" launched at a substantial fraction of light speed.
  • In the webcomic Schlock Mercenary, RKVs of various sorts are used, such as the cee-sabots deployed by the Partnership Collective fleet[2] and the Tohdfraug assault on the planet Qlaviql.[3]
  • In the universe of the video game series Halo, over three hundred orbital defense platforms have been positioned by the United Nations Space Command in defense of Earth. These Super-MAC stations fire magnetically accelerated projectiles which weigh hundreds of tons and travel at approximately 4% of the speed of light.
  • In the Marvel Comic Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon the aliens of the Breakworld fire a RKV shaped like a giant bullet at the earth, fearing that an earth-born mutant will one day destroy their planet.[volume & issue needed] The bullet is not stopped, but phases through the earth thanks to Shadowcat who risks her life to do so.[4]
  • In the Mass Effect series, most spacefaring species utilize spinal-mounted mass accelerators in their warships to accelerate ferro-slugs to 1.3% of light speed. Mass Effect 2 has a scene of a drill instructor citing Newton's first law and warning a pair of trainees that "eyeballing" such a weapon of mass destruction without a firing solution must be avoided at all costs since a RKV will not stop until it hits something; in the instructor's own words, "that could be a ship, or the planet behind that ship; it might even go off into deep space and hit somebody else in ten thousand years". In fact, there is a planet with a gigantic canyon on its surface, said to have been dug millennia ago by a glancing blow from a mass accelerator fired lightyears away; the protagonist uses it to track down the location of the battle where the weapon was fired. The Reapers use a more powerful version firing molten streams of metal. In Mass Effect 2, the Turians reverse-engineer the Reaper version into the smaller Thanix Cannon that can optionally be mounted on the protagonist's ship for use in the final battle.
  • In the Orion's Arm project Relativistic Kinetic Kill Systems (RKKS pronounced "rocks") are 100,000 ton RKVs traveling at 99.9% the speed of light which sterilize planets.
  • In John Varley's book Red Lightning a ship traveling at near-lightspeed impacts the Earth causing a massive tsunami in the Atlantic and devastating the East coast of the United States. The ship was believed to be piloted by members of a doomsday cult who were aiming at Washington DC, but missed.


  1. ^ EM-1 Railgun at the Internet Movie Firearms Database
  2. ^ Taylor, Howard (2000). "Schlock Mercenary for Sunday, November 5, 2000". Retrieved 2006-03-20. 
  3. ^ Taylor, Howard (2005). "Schlock Mercenary for Sunday, August 28, 2005". Retrieved 2006-03-20. 
  4. ^ Giant Size Astonishing X-Men #1, July 2008