The Speed of Light: Reality vs Star Wars

Photo source: In A Galaxy Far Away website

“Alright Chewy, making the final calculations for light speed.” When tasked with creating a way for his characters to travel the galaxy during the course of a few hours, George Lucas decided to use the concept of traveling at light speed to create a plausible (for the unassuming audience member at least) solution. Yet what are the factual statistics about light speed, could the Star Wars characters actually travel from Hoth to Degobah at the speed of light, and what would happen if a person travelled this fast?

Light travels 299,792,458 meters per second, or about 172 AUs per Earth day. Astronomers use this constant speed to indicate distances between stars, galaxies, etc. by measuring distance in light years, or the amount of distance travelled by light in a single year (one rotation of Earth around the Sun). According to the Theory of Special Relativity proposed by Einstein, the maximum speed at which matter can travel in the universe is light speed. So at least George Lucas chose the fastest speed at which his characters could possibly travel around the galaxy far, far away.

Yet is it even possible for the Millennium Falcon to travel at the speed of light? Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity states that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared (E=mc^2). Energy and mass can be converted into each other, so if an object increases in energy (speeds up), its mass increases as well. How does this apply to Han Solo making that jump to light speed? If the Millennium Falcon speeds up to near light speed, (say 90% of the speed of light), its mass increases significantly, doubling the amount of mass and in turn amount of energy needed to power it. Yet as the Falcon approaches light speed, its mass would increase infinitely as would the energy needed to power the spacecraft. With infinite amount of energy required to keep the spacecraft moving, it is almost impossible to say the Millennium Falcon could travel at exactly the speed of light.

So although George Lucas got part of his characters’ transportation correct (he had them travelling at the fastest possible speed anything can travel in the universe), the Millennium Falcon’s ability to travel at light speed is highly unrealistic. We can still enjoy the Star Wars movies, just know that travelling at light speed will most likely never become a reality in our galaxy.

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