NASA engineer discusses Star Wars technology - and how to build a Death Star

Friday, 18 December 2015
Engineers would find an asteroid from which they could mine the building blocks for the structure including metals and organic compounds and water.

Brian Muirhead, Chief Engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory at NASA's Caltech/Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has explained some of the technologies in the Star Wars franchise of movies, in a new video for Wired.

Muirhead is working on NASA's Asteroid Redirection Mission, which aims to visit a large near-Earth asteroid, collect a boulder from its surface, then put it into stable orbit around the moon, to allow more detailed study of the material.

According to Muirhead, a Death Star would not be built by launching its component materials from a planet. Rather, the engineers would find an asteroid from which they could mine the building blocks for building the structure, including metals and organic compounds and water.

Muirhead said that the movies often portrayed high-speed chases in and around asteroid fields, which required rapid reaction times, and the ability to quickly detect and react to objects in front of the spacecraft.

"Flying quickly through an asteroid field is a problem," Muirhead said. "Flying more slowly through an asteroid field -- yes, you could absolutely do that."

"We have Dawn, which is flying through the asteroid belt. There is a lot of space between the asteroids, and we can fly between them."

Dawn is a space probe launched by NASA in September 2007. Its mission was to study two protoplanets found in the asteroid belt. On 6 March 2015, it entered orbit around the second protoplanet, Ceres, where it will remain perpetually after the conclusion of its mission.

Muirhead pointed out that one of the key technologies in Star Wars is ion propulsion, which is used to propel most starships at velocities lower than the speed of light. Ion engines are a real technology used in space exploration today. The Asteroid Redirect Mission, for example, has four ion engines.

According to Muirhead, the variant of ion engines found in Star Wars are very powerful, providing the required thrust to allow massive starships to quickly turn during combat. This is in comparison with the ion engines used in space missions today, which are very low thrust.

"If you wanted to start going to the stars, you will need much more advanced power: that's when you start talking about fission and then fusion, which is one of the power systems that Star Wars uses," he explained.