The Science in Star Wars
Credit: Star Wars/Disney

The Science in Star Wars

19/06/2018Written by Josh Barker

We take a look at some of the real science behind Star Wars.

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Death Star

Death Star
Credit: Star Wars/Disney
Death Star
Saturn's menacing moon Mimas. Credit: Cassini/NASA

Each year we welcome the Stormtroopers of the 501st as well as many other special guests for our annual Return of the Garrison event. We thought what better way to whet your appetite by exploring some of the science of Star Wars?

Whenever we think of Star Wars we often think of the iconic Death Star. This moon-sized space station was used by the Galactic Empire to terrorise the population and was the focus of the Star Wars: A New Hope and the recent Star Wars: Rogue One films.

People often wonder if a space station of that size could ever be built. Some people suggest that maybe one already has. Out orbiting the ringed planet Saturn, we find the moon Mimas. This moon bears more than a passing resemblance from one of the most fear-inducing weapons of the Galactic Empire.

Amazingly, George Lucas and his team dreamt up this iconic station three years before the Voyager probe returned the first stunning images of the enormous crater on Mimas’ surface.

More fantastic images were returned from Saturn during the incredible finale of the Cassini space probe. The probe revealed incredible images of never before seen quirks and features of Saturn and its moons, however we are still yet to find something that looks like Starkiller Base.

Planet Destroyer

Planet Destroyer
The destruction of Alderaan by the Death Star Super Laser. Credit: Star Wars/Disney

The Death Star is notorious for its super-weapon status. As shown in the Star Wars films it possesses the power to destroy entire planets. People often wonder if this sort of weapon is feasible.  An investigation by students at the University of Leicester found that this could potentially be possible.

They calculated the energy required to destroy a planet and compared that to the power output of the Death Star’s power generator, as described in official Stars Wars guides. They found that the generator’s power output was close enough to the energy required to destroy a planet. Further calculations show that it would be able to achieve the feat every 12 days or so. While the theoretical battle station seems feasible as described it still relies on technology well beyond our current limits.

Space Planes

Space Planes
X-Wing Starfighters .Credit: Star Wars/Disney
Space Planes
Proposed British Skylon Single stage to orbit. Credit: Reaction Systems

While the technology behind the Death Star might still be a long way out, there are other aspects that could be closer than we think. In the movies, we see many of the characters flying spaceships. While we currently have no plans to fight in space dogfights in craft like Luke’s iconic X-wing, we may see our spacecraft able to emulate some of the abilities of these craft. Already we have spacecraft that can be piloted across space and some of them, like the Space Shuttle, can even make multiple trips into space, just like the famous star fighters. Another goal we are working on is a spacecraft that can take off, visit space and land without needing any refurbishment. We call this ‘Single Stage to Orbit’ and it is a capability we see many times in the Star Wars series.

Reusable spacecraft are popular with companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, who are all pursuing this endeavour. Currently, all reuseable spacecraft require some degree of refurbishment, whether it’s replacement of boosters or reintegration with second stages, but a British company, Reaction Engines Ltd, is working on changing that. They are designing a space plane called Skylon, with the aim launching directly from the surface of Earth to space. Skylon will then be able to return to Earth in one piece and be ready to fly again after refuelling and a quick inspection. This will massively reduce the costs of flying things in space, taking us another step closer to spaceflight being an everyday occurrence.

Alien Worlds

Alien Worlds
Rendering of the Kepler 16 System. Mercury and Earth's orbits added for scale. Credit: NASA
Alien Worlds
The iconic 2 Sun sky of Luke Skywalkers home planet Tatooine. Credit: Star Wars/Disney

Currently we can’t explore space with the ease that the characters of the Star Wars universe do, however when we have the technology to do so, we may be able to visit some exotic locations like those seen in Star Wars. We have already mentioned the Death Star-like moon, Mimas, but another Star Wars location has been shown to be possible out in the cosmos. In the Star Wars series we are introduced to the desert planet Tatooine, which is notable for its two suns. Such a two-star planetary system has been found before in exoplanet searches.

Back in 2011 the Kepler space telescope discovered the Kepler-16 system. This system has a gas giant orbiting two stars. Later, in February 2017, astronomers found SDSS 1557. This system showed evidence of shattered asteroids orbiting a pair of stars. While not a solid planet like the fictional world of Tatooine, it supports the theory that solid planets could be present in this type of system.  As we continue to find out more about our galaxy and the planets contained in it, who knows what other exotic locations we might find.

About the author: Josh Barker is the Planetarium Coordinator and an Education Presenter at the National Space Centre.