May the 4th be With You!

Blasting out of Mos Eisley Space Port, the Millennium Falcon carries our adventurers off Tatooine bringing Luke Skywalker across the threshold into space. With Imperial Star Destroyers closing, Luke bemoans Han Solo’s delay in jumping to Hyperspace. It takes time to make these calculations through the Falcon’s “Navicomputer.” Han explains that otherwise they could “fly right through a star” or “bounce too close to a supernova.” (probably the same effect of each – also are supernovas bouncy?)

Celestial calculations are needed to figure out where you’re going. In Star Wars these are done by ship computers, or later by trusty astromech droids like R2-D2. But, for the first time, simulations have been conducted of an uncrewed ship’s ability to autonavigate through interstellar space. While not at Hyperspace speeds, the simulations do account for velocities at up to half the speed of light. Created by Coryn A.L. Bailer-Jones of the Max Plank Institute for Astronomy, these simulations may be our first step to creating our own “Navicomputers” (or R2-D2s if they have a personality).

The most distant object we’ve ever sent into space, Voyager1, was launched in 1977 (same year as the release of Star Wars). It took 4 decades to leave the solar system. The next generation of interstellar craft may be far faster but also need their own way to navigate

Cutting the Cord

The most distant object we’ve sent out into the Universe is the Voyager 1 Space probe. Probe’s like Voyager update their position through radar and radio signals with Earth. You can actually track Voyager’s real-time location online. The location of the craft is triangulated using two ground-based stations on Earth and then the position of a known bright object next to the apparent position (in the direction of but not near) of the spacecraft like a quasar. This tracking system is like a giant light-based umbilical cord connecting the craft to Earth. But these craft don’t have their own Navicomputers or R2 units. All guidance is dependent on the connection to Earth. Once that space craft is out of signal range, or if the signal is interrupted, the craft doesn’t have an internal way of being able to navigate. Probes like Voyager will eventually lose connection with Earth and be left to drift for hundreds of millions of years. We may never know where they end up or who finds them – if anyone.