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How Would You Build a Real X-Wing? (Because Science w/ Kyle Hill)

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10:44   |   Dec 07, 2017

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How Would You Build a Real X-Wing? (Because Science w/ Kyle Hill)
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  • - Star Wars is arguably more science fantasy
  • than science fiction, but the franchise has nonetheless
  • hugely influenced what we want to see in our sci-fi.
  • We want lightsabers and blasters wherever possible,
  • and if we ever get armed spacecraft in our galaxy,
  • we're probably gonna compare them to X-Wings.
  • But if we had the means, how would we build one?
  • (pulsing electronic music)
  • What's keeping us out of dogfights like you'd see in the
  • Star Wars movies aren't the ship shapes or weapons,
  • necessarily, but the propulsion systems.
  • X-wing engines have a very specific look, size,
  • and functionality.
  • And that's what allows them to fight like they do.
  • So, if we wanted to build our own spacefighter, what real
  • rocket science would we use?
  • First we should establish what are the engines
  • we're looking for.
  • We are gonna be looking at the T-65 model of X-wing,
  • the most common model, and it has an engine with a diameter,
  • four of them, about this big, so any technology that we use
  • is gonna have to scale relatively small compared to the
  • powerful rocket engines that we have in use now.
  • Our real X-wing engines, it's space, there's no sound,
  • our real X-wing engines are also gonna have to generate
  • massive thrust because the ships themselves are massive,
  • around, according to the canon, 10 metric tons.
  • Mass isn't as much of a problem in space, but it is if you
  • want to go fast, quickly, like a spacefighter would want to,
  • and it is if you're constantly entering and exiting planets'
  • gravity wells.
  • As they often do.
  • Finally, our propulsion systems need to look right.
  • That sounds trivial, but the classic red and blue glow
  • coming out of the back of Star Wars ships' engines is just
  • as iconic as anything else.
  • And so--
  • (jet noise) (screeches)
  • We can use a good old-fashioned chart to help us determine
  • which real, or at least, possible propulsion system
  • would work best.
  • All right, now I'm gonna walk out.
  • I saw what happened to Jango.
  • Now we need to survey the propulsion systems available to us
  • and compare and con--
  • (shrieks)
  • Surprise lightsaber!
  • It's a different one this time, you should be surprised!
  • Let's start with the obvious.
  • Chemical rockets like we use in the Saturn V
  • or the Falcon 9.
  • Both produce a mountain of thrust, but to do so, they have
  • to use a lot of very, very heavy fuel.
  • Upwards of 90% of these vehicles' weights are just fuel.
  • Now, given the size differences here between these vehicles
  • and the X-wing, and how much fuel they would need to take
  • with them to dogfight and enter and exit atmospheres,
  • chemical propulsion just really isn't the way to go.
  • And it doesn't look right.
  • So, how about something a little bit more space age?
  • This is a very basic diagram of an ion engine.
  • It uses electric fields and how charges are repelled
  • and attracted to each other to fling out tiny charged
  • particles from the back of it and create thrust.
  • Now, these engines are definitely real.
  • And they look right.
  • And we've actually used them on space missions, but
  • because the charged particles they're throwing out the back
  • of them are so small, have so little mass, the thrust that
  • they generate is minuscule.
  • It can take days, weeks, months, or even years to accelerate
  • up to spacefighter speeds.
  • You can put your hand behind the beam and it'd be fine,
  • for like an hour.
  • I checked.
  • Not exactly what you want from a nimble spacefighter.
  • And so--
  • (pop) (rocket sounds)
  • (spacefighter sounds) (lightsaber sounds)
  • We can make our first evaluations.
  • Although chemical rockets have the thrust that we want,
  • they are way too big, and their exhaust does not look right.
  • Ion engines, on the other hand, are small enough,
  • they look right, but they do not have the thrust
  • that we want.
  • So maybe we should go a little bit more sci-fi.
  • They cut his head off.
  • They cut Jango's head off.
  • He had a kid!
  • It's a kids' movie!
  • In the 1950s, the design of a new kind of propulsion
  • system began.
  • So-called Project Orion wanted to harness the incredible
  • power of nuclear explosions by throwing nuclear bombs
  • behind spacecraft and having those spacecraft
  • ride the nuclear bombs!
  • As thrust! (laughs)
  • No, really!
  • Development was ultimately halted on these so-called
  • nuclear pulse engines because of the possibility of,
  • you know, clouds of radioactive fallout all over the place.
  • But in theory, they could generate a monstrous amount
  • of thrust.
  • Enough to take us to the nearest star in just a lifetime.
  • However, I think you can tell that these don't really look
  • right for an X-wing and they're too big.
  • Too bad.
  • I think we need to go a bit outside of what we've actually
  • tested and into theoretical territory in order to stay
  • on target for an X-wing.
  • Nuclear fusion engines are still out of reach for us,
  • but only just.
  • The simplest set up for a rocket could be one that has
  • gigantic magnetic fields that combine a plasma and uses
  • something like microwaves to heat up the plasma so hot
  • that it actually fuses.
  • And then magnetic nozzles throw all the fusion products
  • out the back for thrust.
  • More awesome configurations of the nuclear fusion engine
  • involve instantaneously collapsing cylinders of metal
  • like lithium around a plasma, and then flinging that all
  • out the back.
  • The point being, nuclear fusion engines have something that
  • most all other engine configurations don't have.
  • Both high thrust and high exit velocity from the back,
  • which is important.
  • Chemical rockets like in the Saturn V, have very
  • high thrust, but very low exit velocity.
  • And ion engines, like you'd find in a TIE fighter,
  • or one of our spacecraft, have very low thrust,
  • but very high exit velocity.
  • Not only do nuclear fusion engines look the part,
  • they, in theory, could be shrunk down.
  • We are working on that right now.
  • And in the Star Wars universe, they have mastered magnetic
  • confinement in their lightsabers.
  • So, plausible?
  • But if our technology was advanced enough to make fusion
  • engines, we might wanna consider another propulsion system
  • that uses the most efficient fuel source known to science.
  • Antimatter.
  • When identical matter of opposite charge come into contact
  • with each other, they annihilate and release an enormous
  • amount of energy in the form of charged particles
  • and radiation, like gamma rays, according to Einstein's
  • E equals mc squared.
  • Now, you could just use magnetic nozzles to throw all this
  • stuff out the back, and that would be fine.
  • Or, you could take something like hydrogen and pump it
  • into the engine and heat it up using the energy that you're
  • producing from the matter, antimatter reactions
  • as reaction mass, and throw that out the back
  • for even more thrust.
  • Antimatter engines look the part,
  • and in theory they could be very small.
  • Antimatter is so efficient in its production of energy,
  • that just an M&M's worth could take you to Mars.
  • (rocket sounds)
  • Let's complete the chart.
  • (rocket sounds)
  • (shrieks and makes action sounds)
  • (lightsaber sounds)
  • See how that happened?
  • It's in the remaster.
  • So, it looks like, using our criteria, the only two engines
  • that fit the bill for a realistic X-wing engine
  • are fusion engines and antimatter engines.
  • They each have the thrust, the size, and the look
  • that we want.
  • Whether the engines for our spacefighters are configurations
  • of antimatter or fusion engines, there are many permutations
  • of both and some even combine the two, is gonna come down
  • to which is the more attainable breakthrough for us?
  • Nuclear fusion or mass antimatter production.
  • Right now, the estimated cost to produce just one gram
  • of antimatter, a paper clip's worth, is 62 trillion dollars.
  • And though we have experimental fusion reactors, we haven't
  • yet been able to get out more energy from one
  • than we've put in.
  • And so, how would you build a real X-wing?
  • Well, that all hinges on having the correct propulsion
  • system and at least for now, it seems like humanity's best
  • bet is to focus on nuclear fusion engines.
  • At least until antimatter production gets a bit cheaper.
  • Both antimatter engines and fusion engines, though, have
  • the thrust, the look, and the efficiency we would need
  • to create the first real starfighter.
  • And both configurations make way more sense than the ion
  • engines that Star Wars gives all of their spacecraft.
  • But then again, it is not that hard to give a slightly more
  • scientific answer in a universe that also
  • includes midichlorians, is it?
  • Because Science--(blaster sound) (scream)
  • Told ya.
  • Ya gotta shoot first.
  • - [Kyle] I told ya!
  • (funky electronic music)
  • A really interesting thing about a lightsaber
  • if it was real, is that because the blade here would just
  • be contained plasma, plasma is a gas inside of a magnetic
  • field, it wouldn't weigh anything.
  • Or next to nothing, just a few grams.
  • So, if you've ever held a lightsaber, they have heft
  • to them, a replica lightsaber.
  • Because this plastic bit is heavy.
  • But if this was a real lightsaber, it would only weigh
  • as much as the hilt.
  • And if you were swinging around, it would feel like you
  • just have a remote control in your hand that you could
  • move around hyper-quick and not slow like a sword.
  • (lightsaber sounds)
  • Thank you so much for watching, Jerry.
  • If you want more of me, check out Muskwatch (sings)
  • with me and Dan Casey, or go to ProjectAlpha.com
  • and sign up and you can get this show two days earlier
  • than anyone else.
  • And you can get the S.P.A.A.C.E. Program,
  • which is a bit more premium.
  • And thanks to Ultra Sabers for Rey's lightsaber here.
  • It's pretty cool, and it ups my surprise game.
  • And, oh, my hand!
  • Just kidding.
  • Nerd.
  • (electronic and mechanical sounds)

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Star Wars has had a huge influence on pop culture and eventually even real life technology! So what would it take to make a real life piece of Star Wars tech? Kyle gets building on this week's Because Science!

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Learn more:
• PROJECT ORION: http://bit.ly/2iwll40
• SPACECRAFT PROPULSION: http://bit.ly/2ixRQPe
• ANTIMATTER ROCKET: http://bit.ly/2ixS88M
• T-65 X-WING: http://bit.ly/2BFVBJU