Science of Star Wars: Hyperdrive [updated]

Faster than light travel is really the corner stone of any space-based stories.  It’s really the only way to make interstellar stories work.  But it’s also perhaps one of the most fiction-containing elements of science fiction stories.  But there is still some scientific research that could change that.  Ion drives, the basis for TIE (“Twin Ion Engines”) fighters, have been in use for some time – though it’s not nearly cool enough to make actual tie fighters.  But there are some other technologies hinted at by Star Wars that have at least a little scientific basis.  We review a few theories here.

Solar Sail

Probably the coolest vehicle in AoTC was Count Dooku’s Light Sail ship.  I’m really glad that this type of ship was added to the Star Wars Universe as I appreciate that there are many different types of propulsion technology.  Solar sails, though theorized centuries ago (yup, Koepler thought of it before the rest of us) may have some practical applications and are very nearly a reality.

The concept behind a solar sail is simple.  A vessel would deploy a large, light fabric “sail” that would use the solar wind – high energy photons – to propel the ship. The high energy photons, though with no mass, do have momentum.  The accumulation of that momentum across the surface area of the solar sail is significant enough to propel the ship to high speeds.

The Planetary Society, led by the affable Bill Nye The Science Guy, is launching one of the first implementations of the solar sail technology.  They have a pretty detailed test vehicle and deployment plan in place to evaluate the capabilities to build, launch, and deploy this type of system.  You can read more about it on their web site.

You can also read a bit more on the history of Solar Sails on the NASA web site.

To be fair, I’m also a big Star Trek Deep Space Nine fan and this kind of ship was also featured in Season X Episode Y.  But the implementation in AoTC was much more theatrical.


Alcubierre Drive

Alcubierre hyperspace bubble.

The speed of light is an unbreakable speed limit for the Universe.  I got a long way in 6th grade physics on this fact.  However, the speed of light it is not a limit for the expansion of the universe itself.  Our study of the Big Bang raised the issue of “inflation”, a conundrum that for the universe to have been created via the big bang, it would have to expand faster than the speed of light.  So scientists are pretty certain that expanding space/time (materially “the universe) faster than light is possible.

In 1994, theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre, theorized that  a vehicle that could create a negative-mass field around itself could reach faster than light speeds by contracting space-time in front of itself and expanding it behind it.  This would, in effect, allow us to expand and contract the fabric of the universe in such a way that ships could move faster than light.  There are a couple of details to this, though.  First, we don’t know how to make a “negative-mass” field (but this would be something we could call “hyperspace” or “warp drive” depending on what type of fans the scientists are).  Second, this would take a lot of energy.   In fact, the first calculation for the amount of energy it would take to form a field around a vehicle the size of Voyager 1 (or, say, an X-Wing) would be the mass-equivalent of the planet Jupiter.  More recent updates to the theory and subsequent calculations have reduced that to something much smaller, but still incredibly large.  So we’re still learning more and maybe we’ll get somewhere with it.

It’s really surprising that the only thing about this theory that we’re sure about is that it is possible to move faster than light.

Not confused enough?  Try watching this presentation.




EmDrive is every scientists fantasy come-true.  Theorized by physicist Roger Shawyer, it promises faster than light travel without on-board propellants.  This statement alone raises real skepticism and for good reason.  But even if it’s science fiction, there is some science to it.  The theory is that Emdrive uses electricity to ionize quantum particles – particles that emerge in the vacuum of space.  The ionized particles can then be used as to generate thrust in the way similar to that of a “typical” ion drive.

So what’s the problem?  Quantum particles are wholly theoretical and there’s been no testing of any kind to substantiate them.  So marketing a device that uses them equates to be the science fiction version of a snake oil salesman.

So why be excited about it?  Well, there have been a few tests of the device developed by Shawyer.  The first was conducted in China.  However, these tests were not done in a proper vacuum (i.e. no possibility for theoretical quantum particles to show up).  Furthermore, none of the results were peer reviewed.  Another test was recently completed by a NASA lab manned by after-hours hobbyists.  This tests was done in a vacuum (even if none the most advanced given the lab’s tiny $50k/yr budget).  The results kinda showed the evidence of thrust being generated by the device, but they were so small, it’s impossible to tell if they were real or not.

Every once in a while,  popularity of the EmDrive spikes after new test results.  But it is still wholly “experimental” to put it nicely.  But it’s too delicious to put down.

The thing is… we want to believe this works.  This type of device, if it worked as advertised, would fundamentally change humanity in the same way, though more significantly, that the steam engine changed humanity.  We would be able to build fast (if not interstellar) star ships, we would be able to produce earth-based energy systems.

But it’s fake so it’s stupid real and shouldn’t be ignored.  An experiment of the EmDrive has passed peer review in November 2016.






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