'Star Wars' Got Asteroids All Wrong, Says Astronomer

Hans Solo might not be that good a pilot, after all.

YouTube/ Marcelo Zuniga

In one of the most memorable moments from The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo flies the Millennium Falcon into an asteroid field to evade capture or destruction at the hands of Imperial starships. The pursuing TIE fighters ricochet off massive chunks of rock hurtling through space, but the bulky freighter bobs and weaves through the [asteroids](, deftly eluding enemies both hostile and inanimate as it misses the crushing rocks by inches. It’s a thrilling sequence that feels far longer than the couple of minutes of screen time it occupies. It’s also totally wrong, says asteroid researcher Carrie Nugent in her new book.

“If you’re going through the Main Belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter in our own solar system, it’s unfortunately not at all like that movie,” Nugent told Inverse in a recent interview. “There’s a lot of asteroids there, but they’re very small and they’re very spread apart.”

Our solar system's Main Belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter, contains millions of asteroids but is not very densely populated


According to NASA’s measurements, the asteroids in our solar system’s Main Belt are about one to three million kilometers away from each other, not the mere feet portrayed in Empire.

“If you were to stand on any one asteroid, you might see another asteroid in the sky, but it would appear as something very very small,” said Nugent.

So despite the incredible number of asteroids in the Main Belt — 1.1 to 1.9 million that are more than a kilometer (0.6 miles) across as well as millions of smaller ones — the huge amount of area it covers means that the total mass of rock is actually quite small.

“If you were to take all those asteroids and squish them all into a giant ball somehow, the size of that object would be less than our moon,” said Nugent. “So there’s really not a lot of volume out there.”

Nugent isn’t in the business of trashing Star Wars, though she is keen to point out that the asteroids are the real heroes of The Empire Strikes Back.

“The Millennium Falcon isn’t shooting anyone down. The asteroids are doing the heavy lifting there,” she said. “They never get any credit for that!”

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