Which has better aerodynamics--a TIE Fighter or an X-Wing Fighter?
May 31, 2016 1:59 AM   Subscribe

(very) low level of discourse of Star Wars fansites = Metafilter

There's a scene in Star Wars The Force Awakens where Oscar Isaacs, in his role as Poe Dameron, the "best" and "most daring" X-wing pilot in the Resistance, escapes from the First Order (the bad guys) in a stolen TIE Fighter.

Having never flown one before, he expresses shock and surprise at how fast and agile it is--presumably in comparison to an X-Wing Fighter.

Which to my 11 year-old nephew, with whom I watched the movie tonight, suggested that the X-Wing and TIE must have very different aerodynamics.

When he asked me what the differences are, I told him I had no idea but I would see if I could find out.

Hence this question. Thanks
posted by BadgerDoctor to Technology (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
No idea what, if any, the canon answer on that is, but the TIE looks like it has all the aerodynamics of a golfball and the X-Wing doesn't look to be doing much more in the airfoil-moving-through-fluid department (don't even try to think about how the Millenium Falcon manges to fly about an atmosphere).

Presumably all of these ships are equipped with advanced TECH that TECHs the TECH and enables them to do their thing; from a story perspective your nephew is correct - the TIE is usually portrayed as lighter / more agile and always attacking in numbers, while the X-Wing seems to be beefier - but you can't expect to get much of a rational answer on questions like that.
posted by Dr Dracator at 2:27 AM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Poe Dameron notices the TIE's superior handling in outer space where there are no aerodynamics. As I remember the Star War canon, TIE fighter are agile because they don't have any shields. Or something. Probably less mass than an X-Wing which I guess would mean something in space.
posted by My Dad at 2:35 AM on May 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't think we can say it'd just be the aerodynamics that'd make a TIE Fighter more fast and agile than an X-Wing. We don't know how the technology works in those ships, and it could be that TIE Fighters are structurally less aerodynamic but they just have better tech to make 'em go. (I do question the idea that TIE Fighters are better flyers, because in the movies X-Wings do barrel rolls and all sorts of stuff while TIE Fighters just seem to swoop around in larger arcs.)
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:36 AM on May 31, 2016

Firstly, there's no aerodynamics in space because there's no air. TIEs have better manoeuvrability in space due to smaller mass (no shield, hyperdrive, or life support systems) and thrust-vectoring engines.

Secondly, in the (now non-canon) EU books they frequently mention that in an atmosphere the TIEs have much worse manoeuvrability compared to X-Wings due to the shape of their wings.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:36 AM on May 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

My instinct about this scene is that Poe is surprised at how maneuverable the First Order TIEs are, presumably compared to one of two things:

1) Old-school TIE Fighters - the First Order probably had a lot of Imperial surplus at some point in the past.

2) Combat engagements he has personally flown against these new-school TIEs for the Resistance. He's probably surprised at how capable these new models actually are in the hands of a really good pilot. This is both a bit of a brag and a subtle insult towards the First Order's pilots.
posted by lumensimus at 2:38 AM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

I should say that comparison to the original TIE Fighter's performance is the most likely explanation - we're clearly meant to treat Poe as an audience surrogate here.
posted by lumensimus at 2:44 AM on May 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

(I've watched all the movies but I have no deeper knowledge of the lore than that. I am an air vehicle engineer.)

We have to look at this in two separate scenarios, one in space and one in atmosphere.

The overall shape of the spacecraft doesn't matter in space when it comes to forward velocity*, but maneuverability absolutely is impacted by the geometry of the ship. A lighter, more compact ship is going to have less inertia, which means that thrusters and engines can force a change in velocity and attitude much more easily. Spheres (let's call a TIE Fighter basically a sphere for now) have low moments of inertia in all cardinal axes, so you spin it around without much effort. An X-Wing is more like a long cylinder and has a higher moment of inertia in pitch and yaw, but probably similar (or similar enough) moment of inertia in roll. Rolling a spacecraft doesn't actually get you all the much in terms of maneuverability (more on that in a second), so even ignoring the high tech mumbo jumbo I'll call the maneuverability battle for the TIE Fighter in space based on geometry alone.

In atmosphere, you have the fun new element of an atmosphere to contend with. If we're assuming that both ships require lifting bodies like wings to maintain altitude in atmosphere, then the X-Wing wins this round for obvious reasons. In atmosphere, airplanes roll in order to point the lift vector to one side or the other; this generates a lift component that pulls the plane in to a turn (more or less, I'm simplifying a bit here). Rolling an X-Wing will allow it to enter a turn much more easily than a TIE Fighter, even with super space thrust vectoring or whatever. A TIE Fighter may still beat in X-Wing in pitch changes, but it would also probably be completely incapable of turning left or right.

The stability of the shapes in an atmosphere is an important factor here, and the TIE's shape is not suited for atmospheric flight. Besides the lack of wings, the vertical panel things on its sides will make it incredibly stable in yaw - which is a problem. Normally, you need some sort of vertical stabilizer to keep an airplane from whipping the tail around wildly, but the TIE would simply not be able to yaw left or right. If the engines were able to overcome the stabilizing effects of those panels, you'd more than likely rip them off as you tried to take a tight turn to shake your pursuer.

Which brings me to the ball. A ball can perform a very stable flight - if it's spinning. A non-rotating ball is very unstable and wants nothing more than to start spinning. Any slight difference in airflow over one "side" of a ball will cause it to begin rotating. What this means for the TIE Fighter is that, once it hits atmosphere, it's going to start flipping uncontrollably end over end.

If we assume that its special sci-fi engines can keep it pointed in the right direction, then there's one more problem it must overcome - frictional heating. Balls, while fairly aerodynamic, do not carve their way through atmosphere the way something like a pointy dart can. A TIE Fighter would encounter massive atmospheric heating as it entered the atmosphere, and without the special sci-fi space shields to protect it would burn up fairly quickly. An X-Wing, at least, is a bit more aerodynamic; without the shields, though, I expect it would lose its pylons at the very least in very short order.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:14 AM on May 31, 2016 [18 favorites]

I'm a space geek by profession, so forgive me for taking this seriously!

Star Wars has the complication of repuslorlift, a system that provides lift by somehow reacting against a planet's gravity, so none of the spacecraft need aerodynamics to generate lift. It's how the Jabba's big barge lifts itself, for example, and how Luke's speeder floats effortlessly above the ground. Repulsorlift removes the primary constraint of real-world aircraft, the problem of having to create lift from motion like wings on an aeroplane, and so gives much more freedom to design exotic spaceships. This means that you can't tell how well a spaceship will fly just by looking at it, and why people are constantly surprised by the heap of junk that is the Millennium Falcon.

A second complication is that all of the Star Wars spacecraft have insane amounts of thrust, so much so that they can simply point their nose upwards and reach orbit in seemingly a few moments. The forces involved to do this are so overwhelming that common sense goes out the window, or as the old saying goes, "With sufficient thrust, pigs will fly just fine". It simply doesn't matter how aerodynamic the spaceship is, how much drag its shape causes, as long as the engines push it hard enough and can keep it pointing in the right direction. Of course, this assumes the spaceship is strong enough to survive these massive forces, and resist the intense heating from all the drag, but these seem to be solved problems in Star Wars!

Agility within an atmosphere seems to be an issue in the Star Wars universe, so that some aeroplane-like features are used. The Snowspeeders on Hoth had flaps for steering, and spaceships like the X-Wing and the A-Wing also seem to have aerodynamic surfaces like wings and tail fins. It's not entirely clear why they need these features, given the magical levitators and thrusters of the setting, and all of the spaceships seem to rotate just fine in space where there's no air for aerodynamics. Just guessing, but it could be that that whatever system that spaceships use to rotate in space doesn't work quite as well in an atmosphere, so fighters can get an advantage by also using aerodynamic controls like an aeroplane. This could mean that an ace X-wing pilot like Poe is used to being more agile than a Tie-Fighter in an atmosphere because of aerodynamics, but can be surprised by how well they perform in space where there's no air to slow them down.

TL;DR: Star Wars spaceships don't need to be aerodynamic like aeroplanes, because they can float and have really good engines. This means weird shapes like the Tie Fighter work just fine, but X-Wings might be a little more agile because flying like an aeroplane lets them turn even faster.
posted by Eleven at 8:01 AM on May 31, 2016 [11 favorites]

Tie-fighter, they're used for fighting planetary battles.

Doesn't really matter though since they're fighting in space.
posted by arnicae at 8:59 AM on May 31, 2016

My distant recollection of reading a million tie-in novels in high school has left me with the impression that the TIE fighters were kind of like the hot hatchbacks of space - tiny, light, and almost all engine. X-Wings have hyperdrives, they're more versatile - Luke goes on an interplanetary trip in one, but they note that you never see TIE fighters alone in deep space, they have to be transported by larger ships.

I believe the TIE is for "twin ion engine."
posted by oblique red at 10:45 AM on May 31, 2016

Star Wars combat is WW2 combat with a sci-fi/fantasy veneer. Star Wars ships even move in nonsensical ways so that they feel like WW2 fighters.

TIE Fighters take the place of Japanese Zeros, which were famous for their incredible maneuverability, but low top speed, and fragile.

In the computer games, they were basically that — disposable, extremely maneuverable, serviceably fast but outrunnable.
posted by billjings at 4:34 PM on May 31, 2016

Also, the new First Order TIE Fighters according to the encyclopedia (I can't believe I know this) have upgraded shielding and improved manoeuvrability. Their pilots are trained and highly regarded over the Empire's approach of just using them as cannon fodder, so the new TIE Fighters have also been protected and improved in their defensive capabilities. The shielding means they're heavier though.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:49 PM on May 31, 2016

I took it as a reference to the space combat simulators, X-Wing, TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, and X-Wing Alliance. These games are all well designed and well balanced, and they give the dedicated player a strong insight into the nature of space flight and combat in the Star Wars universe.

In the games, the basic TIE Fighter was an extremely fast and agile craft. If you route the entire output of the reactor to the engines (in lieu of the weapons, as the TIE lacked shields) it was easily twice as fast as an X-Wing in a conservative configuration (which was, of course, the Mario of the Star Wars simulations). You remember the Millennium Falcon's escape from the Death Star. The fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy. The TIEs were buzzing around it like bees. That's how you fly a TIE. Go in, shoot, get out.

I felt sure I could dig up some stats from the X-Wings series, the Star Wars RPG, or similar, but I'm having trouble tracking down a site with solid numbers... Incredible how the best of that stuff predated the internet as we know it.
posted by rlk at 6:48 PM on May 31, 2016

Invalid question. No air in space, no aerodynamics. Those ships are movie props designed to look cool, performance has nothing to do with it.

Also, ion engines are extremely low thrust; they are used in space propulsion due to their extreme fuel efficiency. They take years to accelerate spacecraft to high speeds. TIE fighters (Twin Ion Engines) could never exist in a universe with real physics.

Maybe don't tell you nephew that.
posted by BeaverTerror at 4:56 AM on June 1, 2016

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