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Star Wars Day: How the Technology of Star Wars may not be so Far, Far Away

May the fourth be with you! Today is 4 May, affectionately known as Star Wars Day for its similarity to the wish for good fortune used in the Star Wars franchise, appealing to the mysterious “Force” which gives the Jedi their superhuman powers.

The original Star Wars film was released in May 1977 and catapulted audiences into a world of space wizards and interplanetary smugglers. Spacecraft play a central role in Star Wars, with the opening scene depicting a dramatic chase between two starships, and many scenes played out on or around the iconic Millennium Falcon.

Science fiction like Star Wars often features spaceships that can repeatedly and reliably (more or less in the case of the Falcon) take off and land from planets, moons, or asteroids. Even though Star Wars is set a long time ago, present day spaceships struggle to fulfil this ideal. Even SpaceX’s reusable rockets are multi-stage affairs that would hardly be suited for a quick getaway from the galactic authorities.

Nonetheless, many companies are working towards so-called single stage to orbit (SSTO) vehicles that could take off and land similarly to the ships we see in science fiction. Such craft promise drastically reduced launch costs for satellites and other space applications. As with any area of technology, patents provide a way for such companies to protect and commercialise their developments, and a search of patent databases can often provide an indication of what companies in the field are working on.

For example, GB2519152B relates to an engine developed by Reaction Engines Ltd, a company based not far from J A Kemp’s Oxford office. The engine operates as an air-breathing jet engine at low altitudes and speeds, and switches to operating as a rocket engine using internal liquid oxygen tanks at high speeds and altitudes. This would theoretically allow a plane to take off from a conventional runway and fly straight into space. Many other examples of patents relating to SSTO systems exist, such as WO2019/227046A1 describing a SSTO vehicle using a special launch sled that provides propellant to the vehicle as it accelerates.

Another iconic space craft from the Star Wars universe is the twin ion engine (TIE) fighter used by the Galactic Empire. While TIE fighters are fictional, ion engines are a real technology used in space missions such as NASA’s Deep Space 1. Their low thrust means that ion engines are unsuitable for launching rockets from Earth, but their low consumption of propellant makes them attractive for long-distance or long-duration space missions. GB1132499A is an early patent application for an ion engine by Hughes Aircraft Company, who supplied ion engines for some NASA missions. A more recent application US2008/151584A1 provides improvements in the power supplies used for an ion engine, which require very high DC voltages to accelerate the gas ions usually used as propellant.

A TIE fighter is flown by Darth Vader in the climactic battle of A New Hope, where the Rebel Alliance seek to destroy the Death Star – a moon-sized superweapon capable of destroying planets. Thankfully, such superweapons remain the stuff of science fiction, but real-world proposals for orbital weapons platforms nonetheless exist. US8757552B1 describes a system including a network of satellites collecting solar energy, which beam power to a so-called ‘death star’ to target the Earth’s surface. Perhaps if the Empire had patented their Death Star, the Rebel Alliance could simply have waited for publication of the application to obtain schematics of the station. One would expect, however, that the Empire’s patent law would include national security provisions to avoid just such a situation.

Finally, one of the most famous pieces of technology from Star Wars is perhaps the lightsaber – the laser swords wielded by the Jedi. The lightsaber has the ability to cut through almost anything, and while a real lightsaber remains fictional, the use of lasers for cutting has been a practical reality for many years. Laser cutters are widely available commercially, and can provide extremely high precision cutting, engraving, and patterning of materials. Perhaps the closest we may get to a lightsaber in the real world is a portable laser cutting machine, such as that disclosed in WO2020/060981A1. This provides a miniature CNC machine using a laser cutter, which can be disassembled and folded away for easy transport.

So while we will likely never be able to move objects using the Force like the Jedi, some of the technology on show in the Star Wars universe is perhaps closer to reality than you might expect.

Article by: Richard Morris | 4 May 2022

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