The Viability of Starwars Technology

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The iconic film series Star Wars. A cultural phenomenon that's been with us all throughout all our lives. Something that no one can quite get away from no matter how hard they try. In a galaxy far far away, from the frigid ice world of Hoth to the sleek chic design of Cloud City. In these wondrous worlds in a galaxy far far away there is all sorts of fantastical technologies like massive starships and lightsabers,a weapon from a more civilized age.

In Isaac Asimov's writing he describes how the science fiction genre influences the production of technologies in the real world and what technology should look like. Already we have seen a few science fiction technologies been turned into real devices that we can buy right now. For example, the idea of talking to someone on a screen which is now simply known as video chat, or robots with awareness which are now in existence today.

Although technologies such as video chat or robots with awareness exist today, the more iconic pieces of Star Wars technology, such as lightsabers, TIE fighters, and hologram communication technology. The defense and space travel technology from the Star Wars film series are not viable in today's world, however the hologram communication technology is a very likely possibility.

Lightsabers are a franchise staple of Star Wars, the trademark weapon of the mystic jedi, a glowing blade that kept peace in the galaxy for a millenia. It can simply be described as a laser sword, however in order to more so accurately describe its feasibility, a more grounded and solid definition is needed. A lightsaber can be characterized as having a metal hilt, which houses the power source and circuits of the device, which when activated, the device will emit a highly concentrated source of energy as a roughly 1.2 meter long blade (Wookiepedia).  As Don Lincoln, a senior scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Fermilab, the United States' biggest Large Hadron Collider research institution writes, clearly the lightsabers have a huge amount of energy in the balde as it is seen multiple times in universe that the sabers can easily cut through thick sheets of metal.

As the name might suggest, perhaps the blade is a laser but we can rule out that idea pretty quickly as lasers do not have a fixed length like the blade of a lightsaber, and lasers are invisible unless put under special conditions. This does not sound very characteristic of a lightsaber so that can be ruled out as potential for what a lightsaber is.

Perhaps though, as Don Lincoln writes, it might be plasma. This material is created by stripping a gas's atoms of their electrons, a process called ionization. In an article written by Dr. Lincoln for says, The stripping of the electrons causes the material to glow. Plasma is a fourth state of matter, after the familiar three states of solid, liquid and gas.

Plasma is in fact a very common material used all over the world. All neon lights are plasma, the name neon in neon lights comes from the fact that neon gas is ionized in order to create the plasma used in the light.

This kind of plasma though is unlikely to be the blade of a lightsaber because the density of the gas in a fluorescent light tube is very low, even though the temperature is high, the total amount of heat energy is very low. Another thing that makes this form of plama the likely blade material is that electrons in a plasma have a much higher energy than the ionized atoms from which the electrons originated.

So the possibility of it being this kind of plasma can be ruled out. However, there are these devices known as plasma torches which work by employing two electrodes and a flowing material, typically some sort of gas such as oxygen, nitrogen or some other element that shares similar qualities. A high voltage applied to the electrodes ionizes the gas, creating a plasma.

Plasmas are electrically conductive, so they can convey a high energy electrical current to a target material, heating it up and melting it. It is better described as an electrical arc cutter, because the plasma acts as a conductor to let an electrical current flow through it. Most plasma cutters work best when the material being cut is a conductor, such as metal, as the material can therefore complete the circuit and send the arc's electrical current back to the cutter device by means of a cable clamped to the target. There are even twin torches, with electricity passing between two torches, allowing the user to cut nonconductive materials. Plasma torches can generate great heat, but the electrical characteristics are problematic, because of a need to have large amounts of electrical current flow and lightsabers don't really appear to have that characteristic.

So from these findings, one may come to the conclusion that perhaps lightsabers are made of plasma. This is not necessarily true, as a plasma acts somewhat like a hot gas as in it doesn't have a definite shape or size, similar to a fire. So if a plasma is the base technology of a lightsaber, it needs to have some sort of form of containment.

However, there are mechanisms for doing just this. As plasmas are composed of high energy electrons this means they can be controlled through magnetism. Actually, a few of the more promising technologies involved with nuclear fusion research use magnetic fields to contain plasmas. The temperatures and total energy present in fusion plasmas are so high that they could melt their metal containment vessels.

 This sounds very characteristic of a lightsaber.  However, there's a problem. In a duel, two magnetically contained tubes of plasma would pass right through one another   So no lightsaber duels like seen in the films. For that, we need to figure out a way to make a solid core for the sabers. And the material that makes up the core would have to be impervious to the hot temperatures.

One possible material would be ceramics, which can be brought to very high temperatures without melting, softening or distorting. But a solid ceramic core doesn't work: When not in use, the hilt of the lightsaber dangles from the belt of a Jedi, and the hilt is about 20 to 25 centimeters long (Wookiepedia). So the ceramic core would have to spring out of the hilt much in the same way plastic toy lightsabers work.

So that's the most likely design for a lightsaber, however that design has plenty of problems too. For instance, in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope Obi-Wan Kenobi cuts off an alien's arm in the cantina in Mos Eisley with a single, effortless swipe. This sets some serious constraints on how hot the plasma would have to be. And in Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn sticks his lightsaber in a heavy blast door, first making a long cut and then simply melting it. If one watch the sequence, and assume the door is steel, and time how long it takes to heat up the door and melt the metal, one can calculate the energy the saber must have. It turns out to be about 20 megawatts (Lincoln). Given an average household power consumption of about 1.4 kilowatts at all times, the power draw of a lightsaber could run 14,000 average American houses until the battery ran out (Lincoln). A power source of that density is clearly beyond current technology, but perhaps we can grant that the Jedi have advanced technology. They do have faster-than-light travel, after all.

However, there is a physical problem. That kind of power means that the plasma would be incredibly hot, and at a distance of only a few inches from the hand of the sword wielder. Heat is irradiated in the form of infrared radiation. The Jedi's hands should be essentially instantly charred. So some sort of force field must keep in the heat. And yet, the blades appear to be using optical wavelengths, so the force field must contain infrared radiation, but let visible light through.

Such technical investigations lead inevitably to invocations of unknown technologies. But once you've done that, it is easy to simply say that the lightsaber consists of some kind of concentrated energy stored in a force field.

An alternative way the lightsaber could work comes from a discovery made by MIT and Harvard scientists. It's not an inapt analogy to compare this to lightsabers," says Professor Mikhail Lukin when describing the creation of photonic molecules. "When these photons interact with each other, they're pushing against and deflecting each other. The physics of what's happening in these molecules is similar to what we see in the movies.  Scientists working together at the Harvard MIT ultracold led by Harvard Professor of Physics Mikhail Lukin and MIT Professor of Physics Vladan Vuletic have been able to coax photons into being molecules - something only seen in the realm of the theoretical.

        Another piece of Star Wars technology that may be viable is the TIE fighter. A TIE fighter is a starfighter used widely by the Empire, it's a strike fighter and is capable of high speeds and TIE stands for twin ion engine.

In the real world, ion engines are already exist. They are an actual technology in the real world. NASA has been using them in their space craft for decades. NASA describes how they work as ionizing a fuel, often xenon or argon gas, by taking away an electron to make a positive ion. The positive ions then diffuse into a region between two charged grids that contain an electrostatic field. This accelerates the positive ions out of the engine and away from the spacecraft, thereby generating thrust. Finally, a neutralizer sprays electrons into the exhaust plume at a rate that keeps the spacecraft electrically neutral. An electromagnetic ion engine also works by ionizing a fuel. In this case, a plasma is created that carries current between the ionizing anode and a cathode. In turn, the current generates a magnetic field at right angles to the electric field, and thereby accelerates the positive ions out of the engine via the, the force that is exerted by a magnetic field on a moving electric charge. A neutralizer keeps the spacecraft electrically neutral. To put in more simple terms, the engine expels material and that material pushes off of the material the engine has already produces this propulsion (NASA 1).

 As we see in our own spacecraft, ion engine propulsion is not the quickest, very efficient, but not the quickest. The way that ion engine propulsion works does not connect in any way at all with how we see it on screen. TIE fighters perform extremely sharp maneuvers while traveling through space and also in atmospheric environments. In atmospheric flight, TIE fighters have a max speed of 1,200 kilometers per hour. This speed is incredible, just 25 kilometers per hour short of being the speed of sound. NASA's engines take weeks to reach these speeds in space. In our own atmosphere it wouldn't even be possible for an ion engine to lift a TIE fighter, let alone be capable of the rapid changes in velocity and direction we see it perform. That is not a very large thrust. Typically, an ion thruster would have a magnitude somewhere around 1 Newton. of course, there is no actual limit to the force from an ion thrusters it would just have to be made bigger.

Next is solar panels. These exist in the real world. They take light and convert it into electrical energy. How much electrical energy is produced is dependent on how bright the light is and how big the solar panels are. It also depends on the efficiency of the solar panels. Here on Earth, the best solar panels have an efficiency of around 44%. In orbit around the Earth, the sunlight gives about 1,000 Watts per square meter.

Ben Clewett, a mathematician and physicist, used math in order to discover whether a TIE fighter is possible. Suppose a TIE fighter was in a region similar to the location of the Earth. If it positions one of its sides perpendicular to the sun, it will get maximum power out of the solar panels on the side. Wookieepedia states that the length of of TIE fighter is at 6.4 meters. The sides appear to be cubical in terms of dimensions so that will make the solar panels have the the dimensions of  6.4 meters by 6.4 meters. This gives an area of one side at 40.96 m?? and a maximum solar power of about 4 x 104 Watts.

In terms of TIE Fighter mass, there's no given measurement of the TIE fighter. So, Professor Clewett based his estimate off of a real world fighter; the F-16 fighter jet. An F-16 fighter has a mass around 12,000 kilograms. Professor Clewett described that he would suspect the TIE fighter to have a lower mass since it is more advanced and used in space (where thinner materials can be used in construction). So, in his calculations he rounded the mass to be 10,000 kilograms.

The first part in his equations was thrust and power. For thrust, this is just like a normal rocket. The change in momentum of the ejected ions over time gives a thrust force. This can be approximated in terms of the fuel mass rate:

Here he is using vi for the velocity of the ejected ions. The NASA ion engine has xenon ions leaving with a speed of 4 x 104 meters per second. Clewett hypothesizes that perhaps the TIE fighter has a thrust speed twice that value. The mass of a xenon ion would be about 2.18 x 10-25 kilograms. Then he can use this thrust along with the mass of the TIE fighter to calculate the maximum acceleration.

Now, onto power. Clewett describes this part of the equation as taking one ion and speeding it up to eject it as thrust. This would just make it be the kinetic energy of that ion. If this is done many times, one could use the time intervals to calculate the power.

In terms of acceleration, the use of this power expression can get the mass rate and then rewrite the acceleration in terms of the power:

Next, power. The mass of the TIE fighter and the ion thrust speed. Putting in these values, one gets a maximum acceleration of 0.001 m/s2. That's not too great for a star fighter.         Clewett had other ideas too such as maneuverability.  If a TIE fighters thrust is near the center of the vehicle, it would take some torque to get the thing to turn left of right. By adding these large solar panels (even if they look cool) on the side far from the center of thrust you would increase the moment of inertia making it much more difficult to turn.

But maybe they aren't even solar panels on the side of the TIE Fighter. What if these side panels do something different? Perhaps the TIE fighter is designed to receive power from a nearby Star Destroyer - maybe through magnetic induction. In Clewett's second paper titled, "TIE Fighter: Propulsion Through Induction" he explores this possibility. It turns out that this is a much more feasible energy and propulsion system for a TIE fighter.

In the Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope, R2D2 projected an image of Princess Leia in distress. An electrical and computer engineering professor, Daniel Smalley, has long desired to create the same type of 3D image projection. Smalley stated that the image of Princess Leia is not what people think it is, meaning it is not a hologram. A 3D image such as the Princess Leia projection, that floats in air, that can be viewed from all angles, is referred to as a volumetric image. Examples of volumetric images include the 3D displays Tony Stark interacts with in "Iron Man" or the massive image-projecting table in "Avatar."

Smalley and his contemporaries have designed a volumetric display platform, that's basis lies in photophoretic optical trapping, and produces full-color, aerial volumetric images. The technique, uses forces conveyed by a set of near-invisible laser beams to trap a single particle  of a plant fiber called cellulose  and heat it evenly. That allows researchers to push and pull the cellulose around. A second set of lasers projects visible light (red, green and blue) onto the particle, illuminating it as it moves through space. Humans cannot discern images at rates faster than 10 per second, so if the particle is moved fast enough, its trajectory appears as a solid line  like a sparkler in the dark. (Citation) ...We're using a laser beam to trap a particle, and then we can steer the laser beam around to move the particle and create the image, said undergraduate co author Erich Nygaard.

The most rudimentary way to understand their process is to regard the images they create almost like 3D-printed objects. Thus far, Smalley and his researchers have 3D-light-printed, several tiny images: a butterfly, a prism  rings that wrap around an arm and an individual in a lab coat crouched in a position, (Citation) similar to Princess Leia in the iconic movie scene. Smalley and his researchers are the first to use optical trapping and color effectively in their projections. We're providing a method to make a volumetric image that can create the images we imagine we'll have in the future, Smalley said.

Holographic display, in the way it is commonly thought of, can only be seen on a 2D surface. A volumetric display has little scattering surfaces scattered throughout a 3D space (Citation). This is why volumetric displays can be seen from every angle, just like the famous Princess Leia hologram.

In this way, it could easily resemble how Michael Okuda, technical consultant for the "Star Trek" franchise, explained new technology that could make transporters possible. These were "Heisenberg compensators," he said, supposedly used to correct problems of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. This is the famous quantum mechanical principle that says that it cannot be simultaneously know with high precision the location of the position and motion of a particle. Since a person is made of lots of particles (i.e. atoms and their constituents), if someone ever tried to scan an individual to figure out where all their atoms are, it could not accurately measure their location and motion. Thus, if one tried to reconstruct someone, one wouldn't know exactly where to put all the protons, neutrons and electrons. At a deep and fundamental physical level, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle says that transporters are impossible. Of course, this didn't stop the creators of Star Trek. When asked by Time magazine how such devices worked, he said, "Very well, thank you."

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The Viability of Starwars Technology. (2019, Dec 18). Retrieved December 5, 2023 , from

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