World Space Week: When Star Wars Meets Reality

Eric Geller | October 9, 2012

World-Space-Week

(Photo credit: official WSW website)

Last Thursday, scientists and space geeks all over our little blue-and-green speck began observing World Space Week, “an international celebration of science and technology, and their contribution to the betterment of the human condition.” The Star Wars saga opened our imaginations to the possibility of life on exotic and fascinating planets and galactic conflicts utilizing incredible technologies. Since 1977, many of humanity’s accomplishments in space have been measured against the galaxy far, far away. While we still don’t have hyperspace travel, lightsabers, or proton torpedoes, we have been learning more and more about the universe we inhabit, and some of that new information has prompted comparisons to George Lucas’ space fantasy epic.

Join us for a review of Star Wars-like discoveries and technologies as we prepare to celebrate World Space Week!

Mimas

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mimas: The Death Star Moon

“That’s no moon,” Ben Kenobi said in A New Hope. If humans ever reach the planet Saturn and spot Mimas in orbit, they’ll surely say something like, “That’s no Death Star.” The famous photo of Mimas that instantly earned it the nickname “Death Star” was taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on February 13, 2010, during a close flyby of the moon. Space.com explains that the superlaser-like crater that dominates this photo is called Herschel. Unlike the first Death Star, which was 160 kilometers (99.4 miles) wide, Mimas is a whopping 396 kilometers (246 miles) wide.

Kepler-16b

(Photo credit: NASA)

Cue “Binary Sunset”: Introducing Kepler-16b

Well, it’s not quite Tatooine, but a planet two-hundred light-years from Earth called Kepler-16b became the first known world to orbit a binary star system when NASA’s Kepler program announced its existence on September 15, 2011. According to NASA, “When the smaller star partially blocks the larger star, a primary eclipse occurs, and a secondary eclipse occurs when the smaller star is occulted, or completely blocked, by the larger star.” Although the newly discovered planet has two suns, its climate is nothing like Tatooine’s. Research conducted by the the SETI Institute indicates that Kepler-16b is “cold, gaseous and not thought to harbor life.”

SDI

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Strategic Defense Initiative: Reagan’s Star Wars

On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced that the United States would develop a missile defense system that could shoot down enemy ballistic warheads from space using lasers. The proposal, aimed at deterring the Soviet Union, faced several problems: for one thing, it was a possible violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and for another, it was technologically far-fetched. As the Cold War Museum’s website notes, “The weapons required included space- and ground-based nuclear X-ray lasers, subatomic particle beams, and computer-guided projectiles fired by electromagnetic rail guns — all under the central control of a supercomputer system.” Critics labeled the ambitious project “Star Wars” in an attempt to associate it with laser-weapon technology that many considered to be impossible.

Robonaut 2

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

R2? More Like 3PO

It’s no secret that many NASA scientists found inspiration in the Star Wars films. So when the space agency announced that it was sending a humanoid robot to the International Space Station to help astronauts perform basic tasks, many were surprised to hear that this breakthrough in what might be called “human-cyborg relations” would be called “R2.” To be fair, the name is short for Robonaut 2. The robot was the successor to Robonaut 1, a prototype model that never flew to space but that generated interest and spawned a partnership between NASA and auto manufacturer General Motors. Robonaut 2 flew to the ISS on February 24, 2011 as part of the STS-133 shuttle mission. While it only shares one obvious feature with C-3PO — its golden head — the deployment of Robonaut 2 gave Star Wars fans and futurists alike a glimpse of more sophisticated human-robot teamwork in space.

Ion Engine

(Photo credit: European Space Agency)

Ion Engines Take Off

Ion engines, the propulsion technology that powered the Empire’s famous TIE fighters, were considered pie-in-the-sky from their first fictional appearance in the late 1940s until the latter years of the twentieth century. Testing began on this futuristic technology in 1959 and the first successful test model was built in 1970. In 1998, the United States launched a probe called Deep Space 1 that used an ion drive to fly past an asteroid and a comet. According to Space.com, it was the first ion-powered machine to reach space.

Those are just a few examples of life imitating art from the galaxy far, far away. From binary suns to humanoid robots ion propulsion, Star Wars is a lot closer to home than you might think. Happy World Space Week, and may the Force be with you!

Eric Geller is a college student with a political science major who manages social media and writes The Clone Wars reviews for TheForce.Net. You can follow him on Twitter and read his TCW reviews here.

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