Would dragons be stable in flight?

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Greentigerr
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Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby Greentigerr » Tue Oct 16, 2012 8:29 am UTC

What would a dragon need to successfully fly? Would stereotypical dragons be aerodynamic? I’ve always heard that their wings are far too small in proportion to their bodies, so how long would the wings of a thirty-foot dragon need to be, assuming the dragon is built like whatever type of lizard is most convenient for calculation with a longer neck, batlike wings, hollow bones and enough strength to move about and take off? Which basic model of dragon is the most flightworthy? Would any of them be stable in flight, or able to steer? When diving, what would be their terminal velocity? How strong would the flaps of their wings need to be to take the strain of pulling out of that dive?

I’ve only ever seen artists who barely understand physics guesstimate at these answers, but I don’t know how to begin calculating them. Maybe the awesome people here have some ideas.

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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby niky » Wed Oct 17, 2012 6:30 am UTC

Suggested research:
The Flight of Dragons
http://www.amazon.com/The-Flight-Dragon ... B002VA5A0C

While the movie isn't strictly about dragon aeronautics, the main character proposes a mechanism by which dragons can fly. Basically, they're glorified hot air balloons (through the metabolic mechanism by which they breathe fire), and the wings merely act as rudders or oars to push and steer them around.

The book goes into more detail, but I haven't gotten a copy yet:
http://www.amazon.com/The-Flight-Dragon ... 0060110740

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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby Xenomortis » Wed Oct 17, 2012 10:29 am UTC

The largest flying (probably) organisms to have existed were the largest of the pterosaurs.
The largest of these, Quetzalcoatlus, may have had wingspans of around 10m (>30ft).
This:
Image

would suggest that the creature was almost as long as it's wingspan.

So a 30ft creature with a 30ft wingspan could fly. Probably.

But Dragon's are typically not built like pterosaurs. A large pterosaur is basically a massive head attached to a platform that has really large wings.

Then there's the nature of their wings; they're often displayed as bat-like. Bat's are able to manipulate the shape of their wings for efficient flight, but bats are noted for being almost no longer than the width of their wings.

I think the biggest discrepancy is in the lower half of a Dragon; they typically have a long, heavily built, tail with well built legs. Flying animals with tails have typically had very narrow, thinly built tails that only really had movement at the base.
Such a tail wouldn't really help at all and would only add to drag.

Some uneducated guesses from this:
A 30ft four limbed dragon (6 limbs is silly), with a short neck and lightweight head, with bat-like wings (with a width similar to total body length, excluding tail) and a lightweight tail with limited motion would probably require a 40-60ft wingspan.

A really big question is "how does it take off?"


As for dragons being hot-air balloons, that strikes me as ridiculous. Hot-air balloons "fly" due to buoyancy; the air inside the balloon is of a lower density than the air outside. The lift generated by this is small per volume, so a dragon would have to be huge and relatively light to achieve slow flight. Not to mention the temperatures inside being unsuitable for most aerobic processes.
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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby Tass » Wed Oct 17, 2012 3:26 pm UTC

Hot-air balloons? That is just silly. Hydrogen balloons, while still silly would be a bit more realistic. (More lift per volume, normal temperatures, hydrogen produced by metabolic processes also used to breathe fire.)

A dragon balloon would still be very weak, slow, unmaneuverable and easy to defeat.

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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby poxic » Wed Oct 17, 2012 6:34 pm UTC

*That's* why the Dragonborn can take them out with a few arrows...

/apologies. Skyrim owns me these days.
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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby idobox » Thu Oct 18, 2012 1:04 pm UTC

If you look at modern birds, the big ones are all gliders, so a big dragon is going to be a very streamlined glider. Bat-like wings are a frequent representation, but the shape should be much closer to an albatross, very long and rather thin. To stay light, it could be a thin layer of skin on a bone structure.

A big flying reptile is going to be thin, and frail, and will prey on much smaller animals, unless it breathes fire or a similar thing.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quetzalcoatlus

This thing is the largest flying reptile known to mankind. Small variations of the basic body plan should remain realistic.
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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby Xenomortis » Thu Oct 18, 2012 2:13 pm UTC

idobox wrote:If you look at modern birds, the big ones are all gliders, so a big dragon is going to be a very streamlined glider. Bat-like wings are a frequent representation, but the shape should be much closer to an albatross, very long and rather thin. To stay light, it could be a thin layer of skin on a bone structure.


This is to take advantage of soaring; large birds with a lower aspect ratio exist (Eagles and Vultures).
The presence of feathers plays a large role in the development of bird wings.

And look back at the picture of the Quetzalcoatlus; its wings are far removed from an Albatrosses'.
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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby idobox » Fri Oct 19, 2012 9:32 am UTC

Xenomortis wrote:
idobox wrote:If you look at modern birds, the big ones are all gliders, so a big dragon is going to be a very streamlined glider. Bat-like wings are a frequent representation, but the shape should be much closer to an albatross, very long and rather thin. To stay light, it could be a thin layer of skin on a bone structure.


This is to take advantage of soaring; large birds with a lower aspect ratio exist (Eagles and Vultures).
The presence of feathers plays a large role in the development of bird wings.

And look back at the picture of the Quetzalcoatlus; its wings are far removed from an Albatrosses'.


The albatross is an extreme example, I agree, but the Quetzalcoatlus's, the Eagle's and the Vulture's wings are still pretty long, especially if you compare them to the typical bat like wings we often see on dragons.
Flapping is for small animals, big ones glide, and to do that, longer wings are better. Prey birds have shorter wings, I suppose because large wings are an issue when fighting on the ground, but if you compare different prey birds, the larger they are, the more this long and thin rule is true.
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Dragons in a thicker atmosphere?

Postby mathmannix » Mon Oct 22, 2012 5:55 pm UTC

As far as I can tell, dragons that might not be able to fly *today* possibly could fly if earth had a thicker atmosphere in the past, right? Totally hypothetically, what if the earth had a thicker atmosphere that got swept away by the great comet? It would have made dragon-dinosaurs easier to fly, right?
I hear velociraptor tastes like chicken.

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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby niky » Tue Oct 23, 2012 6:29 am UTC

I don't think our atmosphere has ever been that thick.

Tass wrote:Hot-air balloons? That is just silly. Hydrogen balloons, while still silly would be a bit more realistic. (More lift per volume, normal temperatures, hydrogen produced by metabolic processes also used to breathe fire.)

A dragon balloon would still be very weak, slow, unmaneuverable and easy to defeat.


I honestly haven't read the book, but in the cartoon, they were not quite as maneuverable as the more aerobatic fictional ones were, and altitude control was completely done by hot gas generation and exhalation.

Hydrogen could be generated by the right metabolic reactions, but you'd have to find a way to create an organic membrane that would hold it in while still being light enough to be bouyant. Of course, Terry Pratchett had a different view of how hot gasses could be used to enable dragonflight...
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Of course, this could all be a lot of hot air...

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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby Tass » Tue Oct 23, 2012 11:36 am UTC

From the book Strata? They were nuclear powered though. It be tough to get enough energy by chemical metabolism.

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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby Xenomortis » Tue Oct 23, 2012 1:05 pm UTC

Guards Guards features that idea (presumably chemical combustion, although fuel sources are varied and include kettles).
It's not exactly plausible here, but on the Discworld, anything is possible.
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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby niky » Thu Oct 25, 2012 9:35 am UTC

"The Last Hero" had dragons used as a propulsion source. (Chemical) They also discovered moon dragons that basically got around in the same manner as Errol.

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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby Tass » Thu Oct 25, 2012 10:49 am UTC

Xenomortis wrote:Guards Guards features that idea (presumably chemical combustion, although fuel sources are varied and include kettles).
It's not exactly plausible here, but on the Discworld, anything is possible.


Ah yeah, I forgot about that. But as you say the Discworld is magical, and even though Errol is explicitly non-magical, the whole world still operates on such principles as "a million-to-one chance is a sure thing".

Though maybe nuclear powered dragons aren't such a bad idea. It would give them the necessary energy. They'd have a hard time evolving, but they could be designed as they were in Strata.

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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby idobox » Mon Oct 29, 2012 2:45 pm UTC

Since I heard of the black fungus feeding on gamma ray in Chernobyl, bio-nuclear stuff has obsessed me.

A large animal eating rocks, biologically enriching it, and using a sub-critical mass of enriched uranium as a heat source isn't that ridiculous, especially if it can feed on gamma rays.
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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby Xenomortis » Mon Oct 29, 2012 3:52 pm UTC

Are you proposing an animal that utilises nuclear fission to derive its energy?
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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby Tass » Mon Oct 29, 2012 11:46 pm UTC

Xenomortis wrote:Are you proposing an animal that utilises nuclear fission to derive its energy?


That or fusion ;) hey its fictional right?

Anyway, if they are designed by a god-like intelligence rather than evolved, then it would be possible. No reason they couldn't use metals and silicon as well then. You might call them machines rather than animals, but whats the difference? They could still outwardly appear as biological animals, have growing flesh and skin, be self-replicating by mating and even think they are animals themselves. It is just a question of good enough design.

That's how it was in Strata anyway.

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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby idobox » Tue Oct 30, 2012 11:22 am UTC

Xenomortis wrote:Are you proposing an animal that utilises nuclear fission to derive its energy?

Fungi do that.
I'm not talking about a real nuclear power plant, but a chunk of enriched uranium (I'm sure biological processes could enrich uranium) soaked in water should produce significant (for a living being) heat and radiation, both could be used. Some animals use explosives, acids, peroxyde... why not uranium?
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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby Xenomortis » Tue Oct 30, 2012 1:03 pm UTC

There is no organism that directly utilises nucelar fission for energy.
Some fungi found at the reactor near Pripyat absorb gamma rays for energy; those can come from anywhere.

A chunk of enriched uranium in water will do bugger all, unless it's able to sustain a nuclear reaction.

Sustained nuclear fission requires a sufficient number of thermal neutrons. Neutrons themselves are released from fission events, so if you have enough fissile material, you can get a sustained reaction. If your material is a sphere, the mass requried is called Critical Mass.
The critical mass for a 20% grade Uranium (20% U-235 ~80% U-238) is about 400kg. At 15% it's 600kg.
Most nuclear reactors use about 5% U-235 to U-238. (Weapons-grade is >80%)
I'll be generous and assume a biological process can get to 20% U-235 for its nuclear fuel.

Now, you can reduce the mass needed to sustain a nuclear reaction by increasing the number of available neutrons. A neutron reflector (graphite or maybe steel) can be used to redirect neutrons back at the fissile material; allowing them a second go at causing a fission reaction if they failed before.
You can do more with a neutron moderator; a lot of emitted neutrons are too energetic (fast neutrons); you have a better success rate with slower ones (thermal ones). Water can be used for this.

So we either have a >400kg mass of U-235 that needs frequent replenishing sitting in our flying organism, or we have a sophisticated equipment setup.

But of course, an uncontrolled fission reaction is very problematic; it's the principle that initiates every nuclear weapon.
So we need to be able to control the reaction: having systems that reduce or increase the amount of fuel, as well as the flux of neutrons. In reactors we have manipulable fuel and control rods for this purpose.

So let's say our organism could do all of that. Then yes, this would produce significant amounts of heat. In fact, it would boil a water bath very quickly; ignoring the physiological problems an organism would have, having steam > 100 degrees in it, but this would likely stop the nuclear reaction, since you need the water as a neutron moderator (unless you have half a ton of enriched uranium).
But if you could deal with that, you'll have an organism that has a sustained nuclear reaction going on inside it, spewing out a huge number of neutrons and heating it up, breaking down more or less every large biochemical compound we know. Flight is a moot question at this point; if it could survive then I'll believe it could do anything.

I can dismiss a few concerns out of hand; U-238 is an alpha emitter, but it's half life is huge (about the age of the Earth - 4 billion years). U-235 is also an alpha emitter and has a much shorter half life (it's an order of magnitude lower, but still on the order of hundreds of millions of years). Alpha radiation tends to have very local effects due to its short range so I'll dismiss it.
We can also dismiss the usual toxicity (chemical, not radiological) concerns of Uranium, I'll accept our organism could be equipped to deal with uranyl ions.


Tass wrote:Anyway, if they are designed by a god-like intelligence rather than evolved, then it would be possible. No reason they couldn't use metals and silicon as well then. You might call them machines rather than animals, but whats the difference? They could still outwardly appear as biological animals, have growing flesh and skin, be self-replicating by mating and even think they are animals themselves. It is just a question of good enough design.


This is then an engineering problem; construct a machine that uses nuclear fission (or fusion when/if that gets going) that can fly (ideally using wings for powered flight).
This is still not a simple problem though.
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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby speising » Tue Oct 30, 2012 1:14 pm UTC

"nuclear fission" is not necessarily a (controlled) chain reaction.
a radioisotope thermoelectric generator uses fission too.

edit: that said, i guess it would be pretty hard for any more complex organism to remain a stable DNA with that amount of radiation inside the body.

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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby Xenomortis » Tue Oct 30, 2012 1:17 pm UTC

That's not nuclear fission.
That's just radioactive decay. Yes, that can produce heat if the decay is fast enough.
Uranium-238 and 235 decay very slowly.
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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby idobox » Tue Oct 30, 2012 3:02 pm UTC

So, what happens if you are below the critical mass, or have a really bad neutron economy?
I suppose each decay or fission would cause less than one fission, but overall, you should have a heat generation higher than expected by decay alone.

I'm not saying a nuclear powered dragon is easy to explain by evolution, just that it's not as absurd as it might first sound.

Let's try imagining a working nuclear dragon.
We can imagine an organ similar to a gizzard, with enriched uranium pebbles, soaked in water. The water is used both as a coolant and a neutron moderator. New pebbles are added on top, old ones go through a sphincter on the bottom and are expelled or reprocessed.
Because the uranium is low grade, and both it and the water are full of contaminants, the reaction is quite low compared to a power plant, but quite high compared to normal body heat generation, and the water in the middle of the pebble bed is close to 100°C, ebullition providing a strong negative feedback. The walls of the organ are not nearly as hot, because an endothermic reaction happen just outside it, acting as a large heat sink, and providing useful chemicals, used for breathing fire and flying.
Because the uranium is really heavy, the dragon can't fly continuously, but stores fuel generated like that, and burns it in a cavity shaped like a rocket engine, made of meat, and covered in a thick mucus that will protect it from the heat for a period of time long enough for it to be useful.

You might argue the nuclear reactor is unnecessary, which is totally true, but there might be better ways to harness such energy in an animal.
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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby speising » Tue Oct 30, 2012 3:39 pm UTC

Xenomortis wrote:That's not nuclear fission.
That's just radioactive decay. Yes, that can produce heat if the decay is fast enough.
Uranium-238 and 235 decay very slowly.



Wikipedia wrote:One type of radioactive decay results in products which are not defined, but appear in a range of "pieces" of the original nucleus. This decay is called spontaneous fission.


U might be bad for this, but i guess there are faster decaying isotopes? although the fast ones probably don't occur naturally in sufficient concentration. (but then again, the organism could concentrate it.)

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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby Xenomortis » Tue Oct 30, 2012 4:00 pm UTC

idobox wrote:So, what happens if you are below the critical mass, or have a really bad neutron economy?


Define k to be the number of average number of fission events caused by neutrons released from a fission event.
If k = 1, you have criticality.

For k<1, your reaction will die out, actually quite rapidly.
Suppose a fission event occurs and k<1. Then the average number of total fission events is 1 / (1-k). So the number of extra events is simply k / (1-k) (look at this curve on wolfram-alpha).
This grows sharply close to k=1, but isn't very large for values like k=0.75.
So unless you're very close to k=1, you don't get much out of it at all and it decreases rather rapidly.
Your reaction fizzles out and you're left with not much more than the passive decay. The odd neutron gets released and nothing can become of it.

Basically; if you're at sub-criticality, your reaction decays exponentially. Unless you're close to criticality, you don't get much out of it. If you're close enough to criticality to get something useful done, you're going to have the same problems as before.

How do you get the reaction started? When you're at critical mass, the odd fission event that does occur can self-perpetuate. Below criticality, it can't.
Even at critical mass, you need a start-up source. U-235 at super-criticality can rely on spontaneous fission events (if you can wait several minutes). U-235 at sub-criticality would need constant restarting with a neutron source, precisely because it's not self-perpetuating.
So now you need a source of neutrons and have to fix all the problems that entails. Unless you want to depend on spontaneous fission events (and balancing things so you get just enough energy whilst being sub-critical probably is absurd).

And of course; how do you propose to deliver the energy that is produced by this ridiculous organic contraption? Even if it could be produced without the death of whatever has it. I'm kind of assuming this creature has cells that need energy.

speising wrote:
Xenomortis wrote:That's not nuclear fission.
That's just radioactive decay. Yes, that can produce heat if the decay is fast enough.
Uranium-238 and 235 decay very slowly.



Wikipedia wrote:One type of radioactive decay results in products which are not defined, but appear in a range of "pieces" of the original nucleus. This decay is called spontaneous fission.


U might be bad for this, but i guess there are faster decaying isotopes? although the fast ones probably don't occur naturally in sufficient concentration. (but then again, the organism could concentrate it.)


Spontaneous fission is rare mode of radioactive decay; sometimes it happens and it only tends to happen in heavier elements (like Uranium). Spontaneous fission is when a daughter product of a decay is something bigger than He2+ (an alpha particle).
What drives nuclear batteries isn't sustained nuclear fission, but regular radioactive decay, which sometimes features spontaneous fission.
Uranium isotopes are typically very poor for such devices; their activity is far too low to be of use. The fastest decaying, naturally occuring, isotope is U-234 (which is much rarer than 235), has a half-life on the order of 200,000 years. Nuclear batteries use materials with half lives on the order of only decades.
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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby idobox » Wed Oct 31, 2012 11:24 am UTC

I didn't realize decay was so slow in Uranium. It's not surprising people didn't discover radioactivity before discovering radium.

I suppose a much better fuel for dragons would then be radium or plutonium, even if you now need an explanation for the existence of significant amounts of the mineral, for example naturally occurring reactors, or a lost civilization playing with nukes. To be nuclear powered, a dragon doesn't need to be a reactor, a radiothermal generator would still qualify.
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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby Xenomortis » Wed Oct 31, 2012 12:22 pm UTC

The problem now is that you generate much less energy.
You might as well depend on regular old chemical based metabolic processes. An advantage there is that the rate can be controlled; unlike radioactive decay.

And getting sufficient quantities of materials with short half-lives is very difficult for an organism; they're pretty rare for obvious reasons.
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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby ikrase » Mon Jan 21, 2013 11:05 pm UTC

How about symbiotic relationships between one land animal (possibly social animal?) that gathers, enriches, and reprocesses uranium, and then the dragons that fly with it?

Actually, I am starting to imagine a whole nuclear-powered ecosystem on a planet with very little sunlight. The base level producer is not photosynthetic plants, but atomic fungus which absorbs and biologically enriches uranium, and also prepares plutonium and reprocesses fuel nodules by digesting the (highly radioactive) feces and corpses of animals. The fungus is distributed so it is not critical.

The initial symbiotic relationship is as follows: the fungus is the producer, and it is spread around the world when animals eat the fruiting bodies (full of tasty mixed-oxide fuel nodules!) and then defecate the spores all over the place. (they will have two waste streams: One which disposes of depleted fuel-nodules, and one which disposes of indigestible non-fuel components of food.)

Some animals may deliberately spread fungus to new uranium deposits, or engage in other farming procedures. Some may even mine uranium (I suspect that surface deposits will not last long.)


Actually, I begin to imagine this ecosystem existing in A) a rogue planet with no star (might be too cold though) or B) an asteroid field (but would have no air.) Or maybe the extensive moon, asteroid, and ring system of a gas giant or failed star.


You could have nuclear thermal rocket dragons flying to asteroids to reap the bounty of uranium that hasnt sunk to the planet's core, myths about paradise in the core, sentient Orion Drives...
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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby Tass » Wed Jan 23, 2013 5:38 pm UTC

ikrase wrote:How about symbiotic relationships between one land animal (possibly social animal?) that gathers, enriches, and reprocesses uranium, and then the dragons that fly with it?

Actually, I am starting to imagine a whole nuclear-powered ecosystem on a planet with very little sunlight. The base level producer is not photosynthetic plants, but atomic fungus which absorbs and biologically enriches uranium, and also prepares plutonium and reprocesses fuel nodules by digesting the (highly radioactive) feces and corpses of animals. The fungus is distributed so it is not critical.

The initial symbiotic relationship is as follows: the fungus is the producer, and it is spread around the world when animals eat the fruiting bodies (full of tasty mixed-oxide fuel nodules!) and then defecate the spores all over the place. (they will have two waste streams: One which disposes of depleted fuel-nodules, and one which disposes of indigestible non-fuel components of food.)

Some animals may deliberately spread fungus to new uranium deposits, or engage in other farming procedures. Some may even mine uranium (I suspect that surface deposits will not last long.)


Actually, I begin to imagine this ecosystem existing in A) a rogue planet with no star (might be too cold though) or B) an asteroid field (but would have no air.) Or maybe the extensive moon, asteroid, and ring system of a gas giant or failed star.


You could have nuclear thermal rocket dragons flying to asteroids to reap the bounty of uranium that hasnt sunk to the planet's core, myths about paradise in the core, sentient Orion Drives...


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Re: Would dragons be stable in flight?

Postby ikrase » Fri Jan 25, 2013 4:43 pm UTC

Should have its own thread?
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