Star Wars and STEM: The science found in a galaxy far, far away

Star Wars has always been a science fantasy franchise at its core. While the series takes place in a galaxy far, far away, the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) elements seen throughout can overlap with the real world more than most people realize.

From the dynamics of interstellar travel to the potential creation of a real laser sword, many of the fantastical icons of the Star Wars universe are inching ever closer to reality. While George Lucas’ 1977 vision may have been seen as merely a fairy tale, the ever-expanding world of STEM has made great strides in the last two decades.

Between the massive leaps in space exploration and an increasing knowledge of physics, the scientific breakthroughs once thought of as pipe dreams may be inching ever closer. While the Star Wars films might not have directly led to any Earth-shattering scientific changes, many recent developments and even certain experiments have definite roots in the franchise.

Here are four STEM categories where the influence of Star Wars can be readily seen.

1. Astronomy

(Photo by Paolo Nespoli – ESA/NASA via Getty Images)

Space travel is an integral part of the Star Wars franchise, and there are many overlaps with astronomy, the modern study of the cosmos. Between NASA and private space corporations like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the journey towards making spaceflight a regular and safe part of society is inching ever closer.

Additionally, Star Wars’ iconic light speed travel allows spacecraft like the Millennium Falcon to soar through the stars in minutes. The closest real-life comparison to light speed is the prospect of interstellar travel (movement between star systems). While this can theoretically be achieved, this type of travel is unlikely, as no human could survive long enough to complete the journey.

However, interstellar travel has actually already happened, just not by a crewed vessel. NASA’s unmanned Voyager 1 probe launched in 1977 with a mission to study the far reaches of the Milky Way. On Aug. 25, 2012, it crossed the boundary of the Solar System, becoming the first object to enter interstellar space.

Voyager 1 is currently the furthest man-made object from the Earth and is over 14 billion miles away from our planet. With the advancements in space travel, there is nothing to stop more objects from exploring interstellar space. Maybe Han telling Chewie to “punch it” wasn’t so far out of reality after all.

2. Geology

(Photo by Salvatore Allegra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Geology, the study of a planet’s physical structure and changing processes, may have more Star Wars connections than any other type of STEM subject. Given that the franchise has so many different locations and environments, there are endless geological ties to the real world.

From the desert sands of Tatooine to the tropical world of Scarif and everything in between, the planets seen in Star Wars represent a variety of different biomes. While some of these locales take artistic liberties, there are a number of planets throughout the Star Wars galaxy that are definitely based on real-life areas.

The fiery, ashen planet of Mustafar is one shining example. According to an article from Forbes, when Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith was filming in Italy, the crew captured video of a volcanic eruption from the nearby Mount Etna. This footage was then combined with CGI to create the epic final battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker.

The article also lists a number of other real geologic features that were either used as on-location shoots or served as inspiration for a particular planet. With so many different planets having been seen in the Star Wars universe, it will be very interesting to see how geology might play into the franchise in the future.

3. Engineering

Hayden Christensen

(Photo by Richard Harbaugh/Disneyland Resort via Getty Images)

Who wouldn’t want to use a real lightsaber? While the prospect of creating an actual laser beam that ignites and extinguishes was once thought to be impossible, that is no longer the case. Thanks to breakthroughs in mechanical engineering, there may soon be a lightsaber experience that resembles the weapon seen in the Star Wars films.

In May, Disney showed off what was described as a “real-life” lightsaber that actually emits a blade of light. This saber was created by a team of Disney Imagineers and will reportedly be used in an upcoming attraction at the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser hotel, although the specifics of how it will work are unknown.

In terms of practicality, though, the closest thing we’ve ever gotten to a weaponized blade is probably a prototype saber that was created by YouTuber Hacksmith Industries. The group built a contained plasma blade that heated to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt and cut through a variety of metals, including steel.

Since any real blade of light would have to be extremely hot, this creation is probably the nearest thing that people have come to creating a real lightsaber, and wouldn’t be widely available to the public. However, given what we’ve seen from Disney, perhaps a mainstream, elegant weapon for a more civilized age is closer than we think.

4. Robotics

(Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images)

Although they are referred to in-universe as droids, the robots seen in Star Wars have inspired a wide application of real-world uses. Many of these robotics have been used to help advance people’s everyday lives.

There is an entire category of “droid-builders” who use various aspects of engineering and mechanics to create custom Star Wars droids. These builders often bring their creations to various conventions and charity events. They’re not simple RC cars, though, as these droids are built from the ground up and often cost tens of thousands of dollars.

In fact, these custom droids have even appeared in a feature film. The R2-D2 model seen in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was actually a fan-made unit built by people from a droid builders club. These models went on to be used in the rest of the sequel trilogy as well.

Perhaps the most important use of robotics, though, is the creation of artificial limbs and appendages. Thanks to modern advances, Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand is now a reality for many amputees. The University of Utah even created a Star Wars-inspired prosthetic hand that allows the user to actually gain a sense of feeling when they touch objects. With robotics advancing every day, who knows what other kinds of creations we’ll see in the coming years?

Keep up with Dork Side of the Force as we celebrate Back to School Week with a special feature on the science of Star Wars every day.