Ah, the cloaking device–bane of spacefaring warriors the multiverse over. How can you explode what you can’t see? It’s a question that’s hard for even the most brilliant minds to reliably answer, and let’s be honest, the warrior races of the galaxy aren’t exactly known for their critical thinking skills. But, from our perch outside the conflict, perhaps there are a few patterns we can spot that will crack this wide open, and defeat our cloaked menace once and for all.

4. Light Distortion

While a cloaking device is always a pain to deal with, they don’t all work the same. If you’re dealing with a foe who’s new to the cloaking game, then they might not be so invisible after all. One of the more common means of achieving a cloak is simply to bend the light around the object in question–if no light hits its surface, then none can reflect back to be seen. Black Holes effectively do this, their gravity so great that light can’t escape, but light passing near them is diverted from its regular path, too, creating the “gravitational lensing” effect so famously associated with Einstein.

The same should be true for our cloaked enemy ship, shouldn’t it? The light passing near, or even “through” the cloaked object could be distorted in a visual way, making it a simple matter to detect them as they move through space in front of a planet or across the field of stars that surrounds you, perhaps revealing their presence with a telltale shimmer. It gets even easier if your opponent should happen to be so foolish as to enter a planet’s atmosphere, and the refractive index around them begins to vary.

3. Exhaust

There are other ways to build a cloaking device, however, and the more complex they are, the more difficult they get to detect. If the enemy has a cloak that works at all times, even in battle, then you may find yourself in a situation where no one’s able to spot those distortions. It’s time to look for a solution that your ship’s better equipped to deal with. What must be happening aboard the enemy vessel that you could detect?

Well, unless your universe is lucky enough to feature reactionless drives, then your adversary, while in motion, must be ejecting something. Your ship could use those special sensors for charting gaseous anomalies to detect the cloaked ship’s exhaust, thus giving away their position. The only option left for them would be to cut the engines, leaving them dead in space and quite likely defenseless once you finally lock on.

2. Sensors

If your enemies are in possession of reactionless drives, then there’s another alternative that just might work. To be able to see something, light needs to be able to reach the eye; the same principle applies equally to the more advanced varieties of sensors used on starships. This goes double for so-called “active” sensors, which are emitting various forms of radiation and looking for it to be reflected back, like radar–although only a fool would use active sensors while cloaked. This means that your opponent must be leaving a small “hole” in their cloak through which they can collect sensor data passively.

When you know what kind of sensors the enemy is likely to use, you can start emitting that form of radiation and look for places where it’s being absorbed. This works far better when you have multiple ships, of course, forming a sensor “net” that can immediately detect disruptions. It also makes for an excellent bluff–if your fleet starts falling into formation and performing organized sweeps, the enemy might be so rattled that they give up on using the cloaking device entirely and resort to a tactically unsound charge against their target. If you’re dealing with this cloaked ship on your own, then your best bet might be to simply blind them by overwhelming their passive sensors with so much incoming signal that it’s pure noise.

1. Heat

It’s been said that space is cold… but for a lot of the universe, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. In a vacuum, it’s extremely difficult to conduct heat away from an object, only possible through radiating heat, and this fact is the biggest obstacle faced by the designer of a cloaking device. Against the cosmic background, your ship’s a hotspot that’s more obvious than the uncomfortable warm patch in a kiddie pool. While the cloak’s busy diverting light away from the ship and keeping it from bouncing off the hull, most designs can’t do a whole lot about the energy that the ship is generating.

Infrared sensors are the way to go, then, offering a way to “see” the enemy ship as plainly as if it were uncloaked. Even if they’ve managed to reduce the heat-generating footprint to, say, a small radiator, it can’t be eliminated entirely. And a ship that’s firing energy weapons will heat up far, far faster, potentially opening up the option of taking out their weapon systems and capturing this cloaking device for yourself.

Of course, having seen all its potential weaknesses… is it really worth the trouble?

Good to be back! I hope you’ve enjoyed the return of the Friday Four. If you’ve got any other ideas for thwarting the dastardly threat posed by a cloaking device, be sure to let me know in the comments, or on Twitter @RetroPhaseShift.