I never played Elite Dangerous, I'm very tempted to set it up, but I find space simulators that make spaceships behave like they are in atmosphere really annoying. I watched a few videos but I couldn't figure out. Do spaceships in Elite Dangerous behave like they are in gravity/atmosphere or micro-gravity/vacuum?

For example, to turn left, do you have to bank left? And the ultimate test, when you cut throttle, do you keep going at the same speed? Once you cut throttle and you are moving at constant speed, can you turn 180 degrees and be moving backwards?

  • 1
    I would say the interesting thing about space isn't that it's low friction, but the gravity. I'll wait until I can ferry my firearms and narcotics about by doing a Hohmann transfer and then gravity assist out of there, then I'll dish out the realism points. However, I am aware that Elite isn't (and probably shouldn't be) Kerbal or Orbiter.
    – Nathan
    Jun 22, 2015 at 9:31
  • 4
    It really bugs me how many "space" sims treat all space movement like it is atmospheric flight and then claim it is "realistic". It is a design compromise because it is a lot easier to fly a plane then to fly a space ship, and they want their players to be able to jump into the cockpit and play without thought.
    – StarPilot
    Jun 22, 2015 at 9:46
  • 2
    I think that @starpilot really nails it above. Ironically, it's a whole lot easier to develop a space-motion simulator than an atmospheric one. I've written some space-simulators for my own interest and I can tell you that real space flight, using true orbital dynamics and no atmosphere is freakin incredibly hard, virtually impossible to do seat-of-the-pants without NASA and an orbital computer standing by to tell every minute detail of what to do. Jun 22, 2015 at 18:38
  • 1
    The term you're looking for that is usually used to roughly classify games of this type is "Newtonian Physics"
    – AaronLS
    Jun 22, 2015 at 21:43
  • @AaronLS correct, I should probably have mention that in the question, my bad :) I normally just say "I want a pure Newtonian Physics space sym!!!", but I wouldn't mind if it includes relativity as well ;) Jun 23, 2015 at 12:45

4 Answers 4


There's a mechanic in Elite: Dangerous called "flight assist". Enabled by default, this causes a ship to behave as if it was in atmosphere. However, you can disable flight assist and your ship will behave as if it was indeed in space.

In fact, disabling flight assist is a common tactic, boosting ahead to before disabling flight assist and turning around, allowing a pilot to fire at a chasing ship while still maintaining distance.

So the real answer is that Elite: Dangerous uses a bit of both.

  • 6
    Flying without flight assist is harder because your ship has a tendency to spin out of control. You have to balance each move with an opposite move to avoid spinning (because it's space and there's little to no friction). Say for example you bank left. Instead of relaxing the stick, you have to bank right a bit or your ship will start spinning.
    – Yuuki
    Jun 22, 2015 at 8:12
  • 3
    What about space friction (arbitrary maximum speed)?
    – Philipp
    Jun 22, 2015 at 8:56
  • 3
    @Philipp That's where there's a bit of immersion-breaking and physics-ignoring. Each ship has a top speed, this can be increased with better thrusters and power distribution, but they still cap out whether you have flight assist on or off. This is mostly likely for balance and playability.
    – Yuuki
    Jun 22, 2015 at 8:59
  • 7
    I do recall (but can't link, sorry) a discussion on SE about how a "realistic" space fight would go given lasers, missiles and high-power thrusters (but no combat use of warp drives). The answers generally concluded that it won't be very exciting, but rather more like submarine fights - alone in the dark for months or years, engines barely moving, communications shut down, and once you detect someone - there's going to be at least one wreck 10 seconds later (and the only thing you can do at that point is pray). Not really gaming material.
    – Ordous
    Jun 22, 2015 at 20:22
  • 2
    @JonasDralle If you are using the mouse for flying there is an insanely useful control that is called "Reset Mouse" which will near-instantly kill all rotation and pitching. The control is not bound to any key by default (so people might not know about it), and it works only as long as flight assist is on, or while the ship is in supercruise (= FTL travel). I don't know if the control is available with other input methods than a mouse.
    – herzbube
    Jul 8, 2015 at 21:52

Sort of

Basically, during combat, docking and other non-distance-travelling, a ship in Elite: Dangerous follows a basic Newtonian physics flight model, but there are limits set to make dogfights possible that do make things somewhat like flying a plane in atmosphere.

The basic flight physics model is Newtonian [1] [2] with proper rigid body physics model, but there is a fly-by-wire system in your ship that constrains your angular and linear velocity to a common reference frame. This level of constraint on your ship cannot be disabled. This is specifically designed to make close-range tactical dogfighting possible. With a non-constrained newtonian physics model (no common reference frame, no top speeds, etc), instead of dogfighting with other ships you'd pass them quickly by as you exchange a few shots, and then never be able to catch up to them again ("jousting").

In addition to those constraints, there is a default of flight assist on that further limits your ship, so that your ship is moving in the same direction it is pointed, and so that you control a forward/backward throttle (speed setting) instead of directly controlling the forward/backward thrusters. It will use all available thrusters to perform the maneuver you want, even if you don't touch the controls for them. (in other words, pull back on the stick and your ship starts to point upwards, and both upward and forward thrusters are used to change your ship's movement to that new direction) It also seems to limit your non-forward movement speed more than it is without it. You can disable flight assist, enabling your ship to "skid" through turns (change the angle of the ship faster than the direction of motion changes), fly backwards, etc.

There's also a separately optional "rotational correction" feature, that sets your ship's frame of reference to the rotating station's rotating reference when you're docking in a rotating station. Landing inside of a rotation space station without that would be very tricky.

While you do have a full six degrees of freedom, most ships have significantly more forward thrust/throttle than any other thrust direction, and very limited yaw. This means that if you want to turn left, you'll find a direct leftward yaw to be very slow, and instead will want to either roll left and pitch up, or roll right and pitch down. Because of the cockpit design, most people would find turning left with a left roll easier to work with. You don't bank, however, you would roll a full 90 degrees and pitch. Or you might do some roll, pitch and yaw all at once to get turned left as fast as possible, and that could look a bit like banking. Depending on your controller set up, you might want a certain amount of "yaw into roll", which is an option in the settings.

To specifically answer the questions in your last paragraph: with flight assist off: You don't really have "throttle" anymore, you have thruster controls. If you leave the "throttle" on, you'll eventually reach your top speed. If you want to stop moving, you have to provide the correct amount of thrust in the opposite direction. When you start to rotate in one direction, you have to apply counter-rotation thrusters in the same amount to stop the rotation.

Your ship's power source is a hydrogen fusion reactor, and I believe the thrusters are ion drives or something like that. Basically that means while you do use fuel, the fuel usage is fairly constant in newtonian flight, and the mass reduction is very slow. In other words: not at all like real rockets where fuel mass is a huge deal.

In addition to the basic newtonian physics flight that you use for combat, docking, etc, there is a "frame shift drive" that allows for faster than light "supercruising" within a system and fairly instantaneous jumps between systems. One further non-realistic detail is that you cannot move between systems without using the jump facility of your frame shift drive. If you try to "supercruise" to a star in another system, there simply won't be anything there when you get there.

Most players use flight assist on most of the time, because flight assist off is hard. Experienced players will briefly toggle flight assist off to facilitate faster turning in a dogfight, or other maneuvers. Some of that can actually be accomplished by using vertical thrusters during the turn, which pretty much tells your flight assist computer that you want to skid into the turn and then lets you rotate a bit faster.

Here is a nice video tutorial on the differences between flight assist on and off:

Here are a set of Elite: Dangerous tutorial videos that include several on flying with flight assist off: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLU396ir67nHiJwEswBslJORR9YFG7qRU2

And Isinona has a whole "Flight Assist Off" series of videos, where he shows his various exploits in E:D, always flying with flight assist off: https://www.youtube.com/user/Isinona

  • Excellent answer, I just wanted to add the explanation (as i read it) for why yaw was severely curtailed, which was because otherwise, with full freedom of pitch and yaw, the game would have devolved into an FPS instead of a space sim (yaw/pitch mapped to mouse x/y = very typical twitch aiming gameplay)
    – Toadfish
    Jul 13, 2016 at 3:51

Your ship behaves like it's in space all the time. Flight assist allows for the ship to fly with the computer firing reverse thrusters to keep you stable with every move. The computer counters it for you. But you turn it off and the computer won't counter your moves so you spin in space like you normally would unless you counter it manually.


It's certainly one of the more realistic space sims out there, disregarding the existence of FTL (Though if you were to refuse to use a FTL drive, it would take several millenia to reach a nearby star!)

  • FTL honestly isn't that far off in science now. It's very understandable that in 1300 years (when the game is set) we'd have mastered it.
    – Rapitor
    Jun 23, 2015 at 12:13
  • 12
    FTL is impossible as understood currently. I think "not far off" is a huge overstatement.
    – Yorik
    Jun 23, 2015 at 16:27
  • 1
    Even flying inside a solar system, just one, would be hella boring. Even at light speed you'd need about 4 hours from Earth to Neptune... if they were in a line with the sun. And of course, you couldn't get anywhere near lightspeed in this timeframe (and you have to brake, too...). Not to mention the relativistic effects. So, of course it can't do without FTL. Jan 5, 2016 at 1:24

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .