May the Fourth be with you: what Star Wars technologies exist today?

How many different Star Wars technologies can you identify in this picture?
May the fourth be with you! Lightsabers, blasters, deflector shields, droids the denizens of the Star Wars universe had technology at their disposal that sometimes bordered on the fantastical and even the impossible. But in many ways, we're closer to some of these technologies than one might think.

You're not likely going to find another science fiction weapon with as many fans as the lightsabers, carried by the Jedi and the Sith. They have been called 'laser swords' and a company called Wicked Lasers has created a laser version of a lightsaber (or at least as close as they could get), but it's more likely that the blade is made of plasma.

Plasma is basically a super-heated gas of charged particles that you can manipulate with magnetic fields. We already have the ability to create and manipulate plasma in the lab, and since you can even create plasma out of ordinary air, you would just need a way of making a sword hilt that could generate a powerful magnetic field to trap some of that air and then heat it to incredible temperatures. As far as the colour, nitrogen (the most abundant gas in our atmosphere) would create a blue glow, whereas oxygen would be green (although according to Star Wars canon, the colour of the saber's blade isn't determined by the plasma gas, but by a crystal in the hilt).

Blasters are also commonly called lasers, but these actually use the same kind of technology as a lightsaber. The gun creates a hot plasma gas inside a magnetic field, and then it releases that plasma in a beam towards the target. We have something similar here on Earth, called a 'particle beam weapon,' which is currently being developed as part of the United States Military's directed-energy weapons program. They're already using lasers to defend Navy ships. It could just be a matter of time before we're seeing particle beam weapons on the battlefield (or in orbit).

I didn't think we were up to the level of deflector shields just yet, but I was wrong. The U.S. Military successfully tested such a thing over 10 years ago! It's not a bubble of energy surrounding the object it's protecting, but it's really the next best thing. They developed electromagnetic armour that has the ability to protect tanks and personnel carriers against rocket-propelled grenades (RPG). Apparently, an RPG does its damage due to the cones of copper in its head. When the weapon hits its target, the head explodes, releasing molten copper travelling at around 8,000 km/h. This new armour draws current from the vehicle's engine and vaporizes much of this molten copper with a massive jolt of electricity. It doesn't work well against other weapons, but it's very effective in protecting a costly piece of military hardware from an especially cheap and abundant weapon.

Next on the list we have droids. While we haven't gotten to the point where we have walking around us artificially-intelligent robots with personalities and emotions, we have plenty of robots that are pretty close. We have Dextre on the International Space Station, which is basically a robotic handyman like R2-D2. There's ASIMO, which is a robot that can walk and talk, recognize faces and interact with us.

That's not all, either. We're developing more and more advanced mechanical limbs, like the I-Limb Ultra by Touch Bionics. We already have magnetic levitation trains and more advanced ones are in the works. We have hover bikes. We can make holograms and we may be able to create ones like Princess Leia's message to Obi-Wan very soon. I could probably go on.

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We're not going to be seeing a Death Star in orbit around the planet anytime soon, even though the U.S. public sent a petition to the White House asking to build one (and got this awesome response in return). We're not likely to see spaceships with hyperdrives jumping to light speed either (although we can still hope). However, we've made some pretty cool strides in technology since we started to tell the tales of Star Wars, and plenty of these new developments have been guided by these tales.

With Disney having bought Lucasfilm, and with their promises of at least five new Star Wars films, starting in 2015, here's hoping that there will be plenty more inspiration to come.

So, Happy Star War Day, and May the fourth be with you!

(Images courtesy: Lucasfilm)

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