May the 4 be with you as science fiction becomes science fact :: WRAL.com

Like Luke Skywalker’s home planet”Tatooin“, the very real Kepler-16b orbits a pair of stars 200 light-years away.

NASA artists had fun depicting an explorer standing on a terrestrial planet, but this exoplanet is probably a gas giant closer to Saturn. In the movies, Tatooine is a hot, dry desert planet, while temperatures on Kepler-16n are more like dry ice.

The cloud cities built into the habitable cloud tops of the fictional gas giant “Bespin” in “The Empire Strikes Back” remind scientists of the gas giant planets in our own solar system. Scientists theorize that gases such as helium-3 and hydrogen could be extracted as fuels from planets like Uranus and Neptune.

Kepler-10b might look a lot like the fiery volcanic world of “Mustafar” where Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker face off in “Revenge of the Sith”. This exoplanet orbits 20 times closer to its Sun than Mercury, resulting in surface temperatures exceeding 2,500º F. It’s even hotter, over 3,600º F on CoRoT-7b which is 70% larger than Earth and five times its mass.

The frozen surface of “Hot” housed the Rebel Alliance base in “The Empire Strikes Back”. At the heart of our galaxy, the Milky Way, lies the planet OGLE-2005-BLG-390 Likewise locked in a deep freezer with surface temperatures dropping below -300°F. Astronomers discovered this icy world using micro-lensing, a technique that uses light from distant stars beyond even clean planet’s solar system to reveal the planet and its atmosphere.

Mimas

Closer to home, it’s not the moon…in fact it is. Mimas, Saturn’s smallest and closest moon, is often called the Death Star because of the 80-mile-wide impact crater that dominates its surface. The peak at the center of the crater, formed by the force of the meteor impact that created the crater, bounced upwards. At just under 250 miles in diameter, Mimas is quite a bit larger than the Death Star dimensions listed in the Wookiepedia.

Star Wars technology used today

The engines that power sci-fi TIE fighters (Twin Ion Engines) have become scientific fact.

First developed at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, three NSTAR ion thrusters have powered the Dawn spacecraft since it launched in 2007 to study the proto-planets Vesta and Ceres in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

NASA TIE Fighter / Mission Dawn

Conventional chemical rocket engines and ion engines both use fuel to push the vehicle in the opposite direction. But that’s where the similarities end.

Chemical engines expel a lot of gas at relatively slow speeds, while ion engines expel very small volumes of gas at very high speeds. While chemical engines manage to use around 35% of the energy contained in their fuels, ion engines approach 90% efficiency, making them ideal for long-duration missions.

ion thrusters are powered by inert gases like xenon, or less often krypton or argon, powering missions for many years. This thruster is bombarded with electrons adding and removing electrons from the thruster creating a plasma which is guided out of the motor in a magnetic field.

Work continues on the next generation of ion engines, including NASA’s Upgradable Xenon Thruster (NEXT) and Ring Engine, which promise to increase power by 3 to 6 times. NEXT has been continuously tested for over six years without a single failure.

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