How possible is Star Wars? Part II: Galactic Empires aren’t built in a day

This is part three of a four-part series of columns written to mark Star Wars’ 40th Anniversary. Read Part 1 and Part 3.

Star Wars and Star Trek are often compared to each other. After all, they both center on largely human characters who travel from planet to planet, each one surprisingly livable and often full of plants and animals, not unlike those on Earth.

The big difference is that in Star Trek, the civilizations are often solar-system or planetary based, each with their own form of government. In Star Wars, there’s a single entity — the Empire — that acts as the government over the entire galaxy.

Lots of planets, relatively few good options

A conservative estimate of the number of planets in the Milky Way is about 100 billion. That’s a lot, but think about this: There’s 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe which means there’s potentially 1e22 or 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets out there! I’m not even sure what -illion that is. I’m sure that didn’t bother Han Solo, though.

This means there’s almost unlimited potential homes for life out there. It also means that Star Wars might not be too far off when it comes to the whole idea of a galactic empire full of humans and intelligent nonhumans.

It seems that we’re discovering new exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system) every day now. Of those planets found, the majority are gas giants and would never house Earth-like life. There are also some rocky planets out there, but many of them are much bigger than Earth. Bigger often, but not always, means greater mass. Greater mass means more gravity. A planet twice the size of Earth, for example, would be 2g (twice that of Earth’s gravity). That might not sound like a big deal; you’d essentially weigh twice as much as you do now. A 200-pound man would suddenly weigh 400, a heck of an adjustment. You’d also see your body age faster as exposure to heavier gravity causes your features to droop. Now imagine 3g or 4g … which would be fatal within a few days.

Then there are rocky planets on the other end of the spectrum, which are smaller than Earth with less than 1g. Mars is a prime example of this within our solar system. Mars’ gravity is 0.38 gs — which means a 200-pound man would find himself weighing about 76 pounds. Less gravity would cause humans to quickly lose muscle mass, causing us to become deconditioned and weak. After all, you don’t need as much muscle to get around if you’re only 76 pounds. Bones would develop osteoporosis and the calcium lost from the bones would find its way into the bloodstream, causing constipation, kidney stones and even psychotic depression. Not a pretty picture.

So, if we’re going to settle planets, then they’re going to have to be about the size of our own with similar gravity. That seems to be the case in Star Wars as you never see them dealing with heave gravity, or even zero gravity, in the movies.

Getting past that, there’s the next question of atmosphere and cosmic rays. Each of the planets in Star Wars seems to have air breathable by us, after all, and apparently protected from cosmic rays as you don’t see tumors cropping up on anybody’s face.

Also necessary is water, which is pretty much a must for any sort of space colony. Luckily, it seems to be everywhere, mostly locked in ice. Some places, like Pluto, are essentially made of it.

Making the galaxy livable

But what if there are no planets that are out there in which we could disembark a ship and survive?

In that case, we’d have two other options: a contained environment or terraforming.

The first, a contained environment is something we can do already. In the 1990s, we began building bio-domes to see if a) we could have a diverse and functioning ecosystem within a contained space and b) whether the human mind could handle being isolated in said space.

So, over the last 20 years, it looks like we are close to having the means to actually accomplish this on Mars. If we can fight off the cosmic rays, have a source of water and create fertile soil (probably by sending space ships full of manure across the vastness of space, pew) — there’s no reason we couldn’t accomplish it in a few lifetimes. Eventually, we could have self-sustaining contained ecosystems.

But come on, you don’t see isolated ecosystems in Star Wars — you see planets rich in biodiversity living outside under the sun(s).

So that brings us to terraforming.

While it still exists only as science fiction, terraforming is the process of making another world Earth-like. This means essentially building an atmosphere, introducing soil that will actually grow stuff and creating a magnetosphere to protect from cosmic rays, essentially building (or in this case, remodeling) a planet.

Terraforming is a fascinating subject with what seems to be unlimited theories on how to achieve it. But one thing those theories have in common on the most part is that it would take a lot of time. The fastest timescale theoretically drawn out for Mars was more than 1,000 years before a human could walk outside with nothing but an oxygen tank. So, possible for Star Wars, yes. For us … well, we’d need to find a way to live longer if we want to see it.

Of course, like I said last time, things have a tendency to change fast. An idea that doesn’t exist today may pop up tomorrow and we’ll see ourselves on Mars within a decade.

Regardless of that, progress in science is almost always built on work that came before, work that has spread over several lifetimes. Whether we begin colonizing space in our lifetime or not is not really relevant.

What’s relevant is we leave something behind for the next generation to build upon so they can go build a galactic empire of their own.

Originally published in the Batesville Daily Guard

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