We’re continuing with our Q&A session with Brad! Today we’re talking about the technology in Star Wars.
[Brad]: Let’s start with a big one. To my knowledge, we’re no closer to Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel than we were in 1977 when Star Wars debuted, but are we getting closer? When could interstellar travel become a reality?
[Biotechie]: Faster than light travel is something which will take a long time to achieve, if it is something that is even possible. Currently, NASA and others are focused on increasing current space travel speeds so we can better visit and explore the area around us. If we still traveled at the speeds that took us to the moon, significant time would pass before we made it to Mars or beyond. No matter where you choose to go, you also have to worry about having enough fuel to get there. This is why projects such as NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) exist. The NEXT project focuses on learning to better utilize ion propulsion, basically using an electrical source to hit Xenon gas with electrons. This generates Xenon ions, which are charged and can be used to generate a tiny amount of thrust. This isn’t enough for a spacecraft to take off, but these thrusters can operate for a very long time, generating speeds of over 200,000 mph in space if they are allowed to run long enough.
NASA is already using this technology in unmanned spacecraft, and though more efficient than anything we currently have, it does have drawbacks. Fortunately, maintaining electricity is as easy as using solar power and storing power in batteries. The worry is the supply of Xenon. Though the Dawn spacecraft could run for 27h on just 10 oz of the gas, eventually it would run out, and there may not be efficient methods to produce more. This isn’t warp drive, but a new drive called the electromagnetic drive (EM) has been studied for over 15 years, and recently was tested by NASA to see if there was truth behind all of the hype. It is thought that the EM drive could produce thrust with only electrical input, but without rocket fuel or other additional fuel sources.
[Brad]: Let me tap into the expanded universe a little bit here: Some of the Star Wars (particularly Outbound Flight by Timothy Zahn) address the idea of colonizing and exploring uncharted/unknown space via a massive generation ship (a ship where the initial crew will die long before the ship reaches its destination, but their descendants will continue the mission). How economical is the idea of a generation ship? When can we expect to send our first colonists off this world?
[Biotechie]: Our opinion is that colonization of far-off planets is a very long time off. We will not see it in our lifetime. However, Japan plans to visit the moon in 2018, and NASA is currently recruiting for its next Astronaut Class, which includes training for the Mars Mission. NASA aims to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by 2030 . The success of these missions and those leading up to them will determine how soon we can send humans beyond Mars. Generation ships could be plausible, but they would have to be self-sufficient. With astronauts on the International Space Station only recently eating their first station-grown lettuce, we’re on our way, but currently the station survives on supplies shipments from Earth, which would not be feasible on any true space journey, especially one out of our solar system. In addition, we don’t yet know the effects of pregnancy, childbirth, and growing up in space. While we push technology forward, we will have to let the photos New Horizons is sending us back of Pluto suffice.
[Brad]: Though this gets discussed every time people look at the science of Star Wars, I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t bring up Lightsabers. All right, ACEs, I’ve heard rumors that we’re actually getting kind of close. Any truth to that?
[Bryan]: Lightsabers are super cool, but at first glance they seem to break all sorts of rules. How do they stop at the correct 3-foot distance? Are they light, or a laser, or plasma? How do Jedis not need welders’ masks to use those things? Lightsabers may never be a real thing, (besides, Niel DeGrasse Tyson prefers blasters) but we are discovering and using things that share certain properties with lightsabers. First, scientists have discovered a way to make photons (packets of light) interact with other photons. This is absolutely necessary for the lightsabers to interact with each other to have awesome duels. Maybe lightsabers are the future take on plasma cutters.These are high energy tools that ionize gas into plasma to make a super hot jet that can cut through metal like Qui-Gon cutting through the door in the Trade Federation ship. However, today’s plasma cutters require large battery packs and can only produce millimeter long beams making them very impractical for fighting.
[Brad]: Blaster guns – Over at Wookieepedia (a site where I can get lost for hours), they have a great, detailed article on how blaster guns operate within the context of the Star Wars universe. Give it a read, and let me know: How physically possible are the blasters of Star Wars? Are they close to any of the “laser guns” we have now? What are the differences?
[Bryan]: I’ve read it and sadly I’m not convinced these could be real either. The blasters of Star Wars ionize gas, combine it with high energy light, and focus it through a crystal to shoot a slug or bolt of energy. Anytime you hear about a crystal doing something in science fiction, you should be skeptical. Crystals in the proper shape can focus or refract light, but not any sort of matter. The gas molecules in the blaster cannot get through the crystal molecules the same way that light can and would stop right there, maybe causing the blaster to explode.
Laser guns, though, are different. These seem to send invisible beams of energy at lightspeed with explosive results. These weapons are able to make pinpoint strikes against moving targets and may someday be implemented in a missile defense shield (like the Strategic Defense Initiative AKA Reagan’s Star Wars program). Another project I’ve found is the US Air Force’s project MARAUDER. This project which seems to have been cancelled about 20 years ago was looking into making a coaxial railgun that would sling bolts of plasma around perhaps like a blaster.
[Brad]: While they don’t play as conscious a role in Star Wars as they do in Star Trek, shields are everywhere. Deflector shields protect the Death Star, imperial star destroyers, the Millennium Falcon. Personal energy shields are a common item to pick up in many Star Wars video games, providing a living body protection against blaster shots. Where do we stand on shielding technology? Or energy barriers, like those that prevent a young Obi-Wan Kenobi from saving his master Qui-Gon Jin?
[Bryan]: Deflector shields have a shot at being real someday! For decades we’ve been sending radio signals around the world by deflecting them off of the Earth’s ionosphere. In principle all we would need is a large magnetic field that could hold plasma around the ship or person to deflect lasers. This idea may also be implemented (maybe without the plasma) to shield astronauts from the sun’s radiation during long flights.
As for that energy barrier, that’s trickier. What we want is some sort of energy barrier that prevents physical objects from passing without being super hot. A wall of plasma would be an effective barrier, but not a force field. Technology exists today to create a sort of force barrier to protect vehicles from shockwaves. Boeing is patenting a system that detects an incoming shockwave and emits energy to partially nullify it protecting the vehicle from damage. This is an example of energy cancelling out energy, but maybe someday it can be changed to energy behaving like a physical shield. We’ll keep our eyes on the particle physicists.
[Brad]: This one has bothered me in all science fiction for a long time. What the heck are scanners? How do they work? The Imperials scan an escape pod in Episode IV; “Hold your fire. There’re no life forms on board.” How did they know that? Luke scans the planet Dagobah in Episode V; “I’m not picking up any cities or technology. Massive life-form readings, though.” What is a scanner in today’s sense? How does a computer “look” at something and recognize it’s pieces, its molecular makeup? Can a computer do this without a human to interpret the data? Seriously, if you guys answer any of my questions, please make it be this one!
[Rogers]: A “scanner” could be thought of as any type of instrumentation that can be used to analyze the environment or a target, and we can actually determine a lot of the same characteristics as our young Jedi hero in a galaxy far, far away. Some of the simplest to understand “scanners” that we commonly use today would be things like radar arrays and telescopes; things that can give us a general idea about the size, location and appearance of an object or planet. More complicated instruments can tell us much more from great distances, like what a planet is made of and whether it might support life similar to that on Earth.
We regularly deploy several of these ‘scanners’ when monitoring our own planet, usually in the form of satellites. They are often equipped with things like radar (to detect objects and their movement), optical sensors (for generating pictures), and infrared sensors (for both imaging and detecting heat signatures). In addition, the ability to detect and transmit near-microwave radio signals is commonly used in communications satellites. When a bridge officer “scans for lifeforms,” my best interpretation is that they are reading infrared scans from outside the ship or, more probably, by linking to sensors within the ship.
By themselves, radar, infrared sensors, and radio signals can provide a considerable amount of information about a planet or object from space. Used individually or in conjunction, we can map the surface of a planet, as well as detect common forms of long-range communication. This can give us a picture of whether a planet has any civilizations and how technically developed these civilizations are.
In addition, we have more exotic sensors that can provide even more information. Magnetometers on satellites and orbital telescopes can measure magnetic fields, often generated by planets with metallic cores or some significant source for the generation of an electric current. You can imagine that this would also be useful when detecting another spacecraft. A spectrograph can look at the wavelengths of light, both visible and invisible, being reflected from a planet. Since elements reflect distinct spectra of light, the makeup of the planet can be determined.
Most of these instruments provide a readout that can be interpreted by the scientist operating the instruments, or results that can be fed into a computer algorithm to provide a set of the most-likely predictions. Using these types of instruments, it is possible for us to not only locate planets, but also assess their make-up and ability to support life. While we cannot currently just look at a region from space and detect “lifeforms” other than through visual confirmation, our ability to “scan” a planet or potentially a spaceship for information does not seem all that far off from a Star Destroyer’s!