Science

Han Solo's blaster isn't science fiction

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Harrison Ford as Han Solo brandishing the blaster.


Lucasfilm

The release this week of Solo: A Star Wars Story expands the universe of the science fiction franchise yet again, but the title character’s signature weapon is possible using real-world science. 

Han Solo’s handheld blaster pistol is often misunderstood to be some sort of laser gun, but this class of weapon in the Star Wars canon actually uses plasma energy. Plasma is basically very hot gas often considered to be the fourth state of matter (along with solid, liquids and gases). It’s found in space, but not so much on Earth, except where it can be created in a lab. 

To celebrate the new flick’s debut, plasma physicist and YouTuber Martin Archer breaks down the real physics behind the plasma-powered blasters popular among just about everyone but the Jedi in a galaxy far, far away.

Basically, it’s possible to create blaster bolts like those from the battles aboard the Death Star by combining magnets and plasma in a device called a “plasma railgun.” The US Air Force laboratory Marauder project developed just such a potential weapon in the 1990s that successfully fired plasma projectiles capable of scrambling or destroying electronics. After its initial public success, the project was classified and has remained so ever since. 

Archer breaks down the physics behind plasma projectiles in some more detail in the video above. He says the temperatures achieved in such devices so far are up to a thousand times hotter than the surface of the sun. 

“With enough plasma in each bolt these would cause huge amounts of damage, so the blaster as presented in the Star Wars films looks to be quite feasible indeed,” he writes in The Conversation.

When it comes to choosing between a blaster and a lightsaber, Archer says to consider this: “When two lightsabers collide, [it causes] explosive destruction of both the weapons and the people holding them. However, with a blaster you are far away from that explosion – leaving you totally unscathed.”

So maybe Solo’s weapon of choice makes the most sense for fighting the Empire, but I still think I’d prefer to master the Jedi mind trick and avoid the fireworks altogether. 

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