May the Fourth Be With You: The Science of the Millennium Falcon

On Star Wars day, we take a look at the science behind the series’ most popular spacecraft and the force fields it flies through

Scientists calculated how to make a force field big enough to fit the Millennium Falcon.
Scientists calculated how to make a force field big enough to fit the Millennium Falcon. Photo courtesy of Mary Evans / Lucas Film / Ronald Grant / Everett Collection (10336353)

Today, if you aren’t already aware, is something of an intergalactic holiday. In recent years, May 4th has become an unofficial day to honor the iconic film series Star Wars, because the date is a rhyming pun of the signature line, “May the Force Fourth Be With You.” All around the world, Star Wars fans are celebrating Luke, Leia, Boba Fett and (maybe even) the Ewoks.

We decided to channel our inner Jedi by checking out the contributions science has made towards a better understanding of the Star Wars universe. Last year, it turns out, a team of physicists from the University of Leicester in Britain took a closer look at many fans’ favorite spacecraft: Han Solo and Chewbacca’s hyperspace-traveling Millennium Falcon (which made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs!)

The scientists noted that force fields are often employed in the Star Wars universe to provide a barrier between the hangars of spaceships and outer space, preventing the ship’s atmosphere from being sucked outwards (think of spacecraft flying inside the Death Star‘s massive hangar bay, with no mechanical airlock). The physicists noted that a real-life innovation, the plasma window, could theoretically serve to create such force fields. Plasma windows, invented by Brookhaven Lab physicist Ady Hershcovitch in 1995, use magnetic fields to create bounded areas filled with plasma (superheated, viscous ionized gas), which have the special property of blocking air from entering a vacuum while allowing radiation and physical objects to freely pass through.

With this knowledge in hand, the research team decided to try calculating the amount of energy that would be necessary to create a docking force field large enough to accommodate the Millennium Falcon, which they estimate is roughly 100 by 40 by 6 feet. Their conclusion? Theoretically possible with current technology—but generating sufficient amounts of energy to continuously sustain a force field that size is unlikely to be feasible.

But, in a galaxy far, far away, anything is possible.