How Star Wars technology could soon be used in the real world
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?
CAN LIGHT MOLECULES ACT LIKE LIGHTSABERS?
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.
WILL A PROSTHETIC ARM COME ABOUT THROUGH THE SHEER POWER OF IMAGINATION?
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.
ARE LASER WEAPONS ALREADY IN USE?
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.