How Star Wars tech­nol­ogy could soon be used in the real world

World of Knowledge (Australia) - - Contents -

Sci­ence fic­tion or soon to be a re­al­ity? Just how au­then­tic is the tech­nol­ogy in Starwars? When will the first lightsaber be con­structed? How do you build a TIE fighter? We’ve ex­am­ined the facts – with some sur­pris­ing re­sults

A va­ri­ety of ex­otic worlds ex­ist in the Star Wars galaxy. While plan­ets such as Hoth, Jakku and Dagobah con­sist en­tirely of ice, desert and swamps, you can mar­vel at two sun­sets on Ta­tooine and visit un­der­wa­ter cities on Na­boo. But how re­al­is­tic is this uni­verse? Is there such a thing as a desert planet? The­o­ret­i­cally yes, but Bruce Betts, direc­tor of the Plan­e­tary So­ci­ety in Pasadena, thinks it’s un­likely: “The plan­ets de­picted in the films have very mo­not­o­nous scenery – there’s a jun­gle planet, an ice planet and so on – while the Earth and Mars have very var­ied cli­mates.” That said, Ta­tooine’s two suns aren’t purely sci­ence fic­tion be­cause NASA sci­en­tists, us­ing the Ke­pler space tele­scope, have al­ready iden­ti­fied a planet within a bi­nary star sys­tem. Ac­cord­ing to as­tro­physi­cist Alan Boss, this was a ground­break­ing dis­cov­ery. “Again, some­thing that ap­peared to be sci­ence fic­tion be­came a re­al­ity.”

It’s prob­a­bly the most fa­mous weapon in film his­tory: the lightsaber, sym­bol of the Jedi war­rior. In re­al­ity, there are a few prob­lems with pro­duc­ing this tech­nol­ogy. The great­est ob­sta­cle: light par­ti­cles, called pho­tons, have no mass and so can’t in­ter­act with each other. If two laser beams in the form of swords met, they’d sim­ply pass through one other and have no ef­fect. But now US re­searchers have done the seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble: they’ve brought pho­tons to­gether to form a kind of molecule. This means that if the par­ti­cles col­lide, they’ll bounce off each other – a com­pletely new state of mat­ter and the first step to­wards lightsaber tech­nol­ogy…

In the real world, the drive sys­tem of the most iconic of the Im­pe­rial fighter ships has been used for a long time. As far back as 2003, the Euro­pean Space Agency’s SMART-1 was launched and, like the TIE fighter, it uses so­lar-pow­ered en­gines. It needs 38.5 hours to ac­cel­er­ate to 100km/h, but its en­durance is un­beat­able: thanks to its ion thruster, the SMART-1 can reach an in­cred­i­bly high speed be­cause – un­like chem­i­cal en­gines that only fire for a few min­utes – it can ac­cel­er­ate over years. This helps it save fuel. NASA’S Dawn space­craft, which was launched in 2007 to ex­plore the dwarf planet Ceres and en­tered its or­bit in March this year, also has an ion thruster that draws its en­ergy from the sun. Dur­ing its mis­sion, Dawn ac­cel­er­ated to 38,620kmh, eclips­ing the record for ve­loc­ity change pro­duced by a space­craft’s en­gines.

The Mil­len­nium Fal­con is one of the fastest space­ships in the Star Wars uni­verse. It trav­els 25,000 light years per day and can reach nine mil­lion times the speed of light. With speeds like that it can even shake off an Im­pe­rial Star De­stroyer, which can ‘only’ ac­cel­er­ate more than two mil­lion times faster than the speed of light through space. Pass­ing through the light bar­rier (the speed of light is around 300,000km per sec­ond) leads to ‘hy­per­space’, which has up to eleven di­men­sions and avoids Ein­stein’s cos­mic speed limit.

it even in­spired some new tech­nolo­gies. So, to cel­e­brate the film’s suc­cess, World of Knowl­edge has been ex­am­in­ing the state of re­search into the tech­nol­ogy used in Star Wars. How do lightsabers, pros­thetic arms and laser weapons work? Do these tech­nolo­gies stand up to a re­al­ity check? And are some of them al­ready in use with­out us even know­ing it?


Ev­ery­one’s dreamed of hold­ing a lightsaber in their hands – but, un­for­tu­nately, physics has other ideas: the blade would sim­ply be an in­fin­itely long light or laser, which would only be vis­i­ble when it struck re­sis­tance. The beam would be most vis­i­ble when it en­coun­ters dust par­ti­cles – like a laser pointer.

How­ever, a blade of light may not be the stuff of fic­tion much longer, be­cause a team of US re­searchers has done some­thing that could turn the world of physics on its head: “We have de­vel­oped a method of mak­ing pho­tons in­ter­act with each other so that they be­gin to be­have as if they have mass. They com­bine to form quasi-mol­e­cules,” ex­plains Mikhail Lukin of Har­vard Univer­sity. In an ex­per­i­ment, the sci­en­tists pumped ru­bid­ium atoms into a vac­uum cham­ber and cooled the atom cloud us­ing lasers to a few de­grees above ab­so­lute zero. When they shot more par­ti­cles at the cloud, they didn’t es­cape as sep­a­rate atoms – but as a con­nected unit. “When these pho­tons in­ter­act, they nudge and guide each other – the physics here is sim­i­lar to what would oc­cur in a lightsaber,” ex­plains Lukin.

The re­searchers are al­ready dream­ing of cre­at­ing com­plex three-di­men­sional struc­tures from this com­pletely new state of mat­ter in the fu­ture: they want to pro­duce crys­tals of pure light – lightsabers.


One ques­tion that was hotly de­bated when the first trail­ers were re­leased: where’s Luke Sky­walker? There’s was no trace of the hero in the pro­mos – apart from one scene where a hooded fig­ure stretches out a pros­thetic arm to R2D2. This was clearly veiled ref­er­ence to Luke, who lost his right hand in a bat­tle with Darth Vader, which was then re­placed with a cy­ber­netic pros­the­sis. But is this tech­nol­ogy still re­ally in the dis­tant fu­ture? In the US, the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency (DARPA) spent $40 mil­lion devel­op­ing an ar­ti­fi­cial arm, which was ap­proved for the mar­ket in 2014.

“It’s a com­pletely new state of the mat­ter – physics

be­hind it is sim­i­lar to what would have to hap­pen in­side a lightsaber.”

Tellingly, its nick­name is “Luke”. It can carry out ten dif­fer­ent move­ments and has six grip pat­terns that al­low the wearer to eat in­de­pen­dently, tie their shoes – maybe one day even swing a lightsaber. The ar­ti­fi­cial arm is con­trolled by elec­trodes, which are at­tached near the top of the pros­thetic. They in­ter­pret the brain sig­nals that trig­ger mus­cle con­trac­tions and trans­mit them to a com­puter that con­verts the sig­nals into move­ment com­mands. Clever – but it comes at a price. Cur­rently that’s around $100,000.


Silently, the drone flies to­wards its des­ti­na­tion over the bar­ren desert land­scape. Sud­denly – as if struck by an in­vis­i­ble beam – it launches into a tail­spin be­fore crash­ing into the hard sand be­low. What sounds like a scene from The Force Awak­ens ac­tu­ally took place in New Mex­ico re­cently. It hap­pened dur­ing test­ing of a pro­to­type laser weapon that avi­a­tion gi­ants Boe­ing has de­vel­oped for the US mil­i­tary. En­gi­neers mounted a ro­tat­able ten-kilo­watt solid-state laser to a US Army truck and shot down more than 150 tar­gets, in­clud­ing re­mote-con­trolled drones and mor­tar shells.

The High-en­ergy Laser Mo­bile Demon­stra­tor (HELMD) has sev­eral sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tages over con­ven­tional weapons sys­tems: it can op­er­ate au­tonomously, shoot an un­lim­ited amount of times (thanks to a diesel gen­er­a­tor), and is sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper. “A bud­get mis­sile costs $100,000 and can only be fired once,” ex­plains Boe­ing direc­tor David Deyoung. “To fire the laser weapon once costs less than $10.”

While HELMD is only in the test­ing phase, the first laser gun is in al­ready in use on the war­ship USS Ponce, which pa­trols the Per­sian Gulf. The $40 mil­lion laser

“Fi­bre laser could weapons save lives”

weapon sys­tem (LAWS) can fire both warn­ing shots and deadly beams of light, and only needs a few sec­onds to take out drones or set fire to a boat con­tain­ing pi­rates or ter­ror­ists.

All of these sys­tems are based on fi­bre laser tech­nol­ogy. Light from semi­con­duc­tor laser diodes is en­closed in thin glass fi­bre and then re­flected in a heavy metal fi­bre core, be­fore even­tu­ally be­ing con­verted into an in­tense laser beam. Al­though there’s still a long way to go un­til we de­velop the laser can­non seen in Star Wars, tech­nol­ogy ex­pert Paul Scharre thinks the US mil­i­tary is on the cusp of us­ing di­rected-en­ergy weapons in the field: “Fi­bre laser weapons could save lives and pro­tect US bases, ships and mil­i­tary per­son­nel.” So the fu­ture has al­ready be­gun.

HOS­TILE ZONE The sur­face of Jakku, the home planet of new Star Wars hero­ine Rey, is com­pletely cov­ered by desert land­scapes. Ex­perts think it un­likely that life could de­velop on a com­pletely arid, parched planet.

RETRO LOOK The most strik­ing in­no­va­tion on the ear­lier Star Wars films: the two cross­guards on the hilt of the lightsaber be­long­ing to vil­lain Kylo Ren (right), which are rem­i­nis­cent of those found on a me­dieval longsword. ALL UN­DER CON­TROL A sta­ble saber

LASER DIODES SIG­NAL COMBINER OP­TI­CAL FI­BRE LASER WEAPON SYS­TEM Al­though we are still some way from epic space bat­tles, laser weapon tech­nol­ogy al­ready ex­ists – and is used on the Amer­i­can war­ship USS Ponce. The physics be­hind it is sim­ple: light from las

RID­DLE IN THE SAND In the new Star Wars film the wreck of an Im­pe­rial Star De­stroyer on Jakku is the start­ing point of the story – and the scene of many spec­tac­u­lar chases.

46,800 CREW MEM­BERS They can carry up to 46,800 per­son­nel, in­clud­ing 9,700 stormtroop­ers. Com­pare this with the big­gest cruise ship, Har­mony of the Seas, ‘only’ ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing 6,360 peo­ple. FROM ZERO TO HY­PER­SPACE The 1,600-me­tre-long De­stroyer was e

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