Star Wars Science: Revealing Real-World Physics Behind Plasma Shields
April 30, 2014

Star Wars Science: Revealing Real-World Physics Behind Plasma Shields

[ Watch the Video: Shields Up! The Physics Of Star Wars ]

Just as production of the next Star Wars film is starting to ramp up in London – student researchers 100 miles up the road at the University of Leicester revealed a report on the physics behind plasma shields used to protect battling spaceships and the massive Death Star.

Published in the peer-reviewed, student-run Journal of Special Physics Topics, the new report concluded that laser-deflecting shields like those seen in Star Wars could be made with existing technology readily available here on Earth. However, the shields as they have described them wouldn’t be very practical.

The shields in the Star Wars movies are invisible to the naked eye and are either completely transparent or tinted and translucent. The shields effectively deflect laser beams – keeping the shielded object safe from harm.

To replicate this kind of shield, the students deemed that an encompassing field of super-hot plasma could be used with a magnetic field keeping it in position. The researchers said the denser the shield plasma, the greater the frequency of electromagnetic wave, or laser, will be repelled.

This phenomenon can actually be observed high above our own planet in ‘over-the-horizon’ radio transmissions, utilized for early warning RADAR systems, and for long distance transmissions where satellite technology is not possible.

“The Earth’s atmosphere is made up of several distinct layers, one of which is the ionosphere,” said study author Alexander Toohie, a student at the university. “The ionosphere is a plasma, and extends from roughly (31 miles) above the surface of the Earth to the edge of space.”

“Just like the plasma described in our paper, it reflects certain frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, in this case radio frequencies,” Toohie continued. “Radio communications and RADAR can be beamed upwards toward the sky where it will be reflected back down toward the Earth. This method can be used to send communications over the horizon where radio transmissions would not normally be capable of reaching, much like using a mirror to look around a corner.”

While the ability to generate the magnetic field necessary for the shield is currently possible, the large power source necessary to create and maintain the field would make the system impractical for spaceships.

Another major issue with the system devised by the UK students is that a shield designed to keep out laser light would also keep out visible light – effectively blinding a spaceship pilot.

Despite the theoretical system’s drawback for protecting a spaceship, Toohie said the technology behind these shields might have other applications.

“Another possible application of this principle may be for trapping radiation inside a shell of plasma rather than excluding it,” he said. “This may be useful for applications that require incredibly high temperature environments, such as experimental fusion reactors.”

Course tutor Mervyn Roy, a lecturer in the University of Leicester’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, said although the study may not have practical applications right now, having the students develop a scientific paper on Star Wars gives them a view of the scientific publishing process.

“The students are encouraged to be imaginative with their topics, and find ways to apply basic physics to the weird, the wonderful and the everyday,” he said.