Einstein and the Millennium Falcon–the Timeline of The Empire Strikes Back

After forty-one years and counting of the Star Wars franchise, which has brought us ten movies, seven television series, and God knows how many books, comics, works-in-progress, and various other media artifacts, I still maintain that the pinnacle of them all was the second movie (Episode V), The Empire Strikes Back.  I will take that statement as self-evident 🙂 and thus I don’t intend to make that argument here.  Rather, I recently wrote a post about space in which I mentioned time dilation in The Empire Strikes Back, and said that that would be material for another post.  This is that post.

I watched The Empire Strikes Back when it came out in 1980, the summer after my junior year in high school.  It was long-anticipated, and as I’ve mentioned before, some loud-mouthed acquaintances, having read the book before the movie came out, spoiled the big reveal about Darth Vader being Luke’s father.  Despite this, I found I enjoyed the movie enormously, more even than I had the first.  I think this is a good demonstration of an argument made by the Plaid Adder, a blogger I follow.  She says that if a reveal is properly done, then a spoiler–finding out about it ahead of time–doesn’t, in fact, spoil the show.  This was definitely the case with me and Empire.

Anyway, I don’t know when I got to thinking about the specific issue I want to discuss today, but it gradually presented itself to me over the course of a few years.  I don’t think I was aware of it at the time I watched the movie for the first time; but I think I had the matter articulated by the time I was in college.  To make it clear just what I’m talking about, let’s have a quick recap of the relevant events of the movie.

I’ll assume everyone here is familiar with the movie (if not, then for God’s sake, go watch it!  Now!), so I’m not going to elaborate on details beyond the specific issue at hand.  We’ll pick up the narrative as the Imperial forces seize control of Hoth and the rebels get the hell out of Dodge, barely ahead of the Imperial Star Destroyers.  Luke Skywalker, having been instructed by the Force-ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi to seek out Yoda, leaves accompanied only by R2-D2, bound for Dagobah.  How an X-wing fighter has the range for interstellar flight is a puzzle, but we’ll chalk that up to willing suspension of disbelief and return to it later.  In any case, the remaining rebels flee the planet, jumping into hyperspace to meet at the rendezvous point.  Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3P0 are the last out in the Millennium Falcon.  When they attempt the jump to lightspeed, though, Han finds out his hyperdrive is malfunctioning.  After a series of chases, hiding out in an asteroid, buzzing a Star Destroyer, and trying to blend in to the space junk ditched from said Star Destroyer, Han checks his computer and finds out that there is a planet where an old friend of his lives.  Han flies the Falcon–and this is important to note, he does this at sublight speed–to the gas planet Bespin.  Arriving at Cloud City, the main settlement on Bespin, Han and company are offered hospitality by Han’s old buddy Lando Calrissian.  Alas, the hospitality is short-lived–Lando has betrayed them into the hands of Darth Vader, who arrived shortly before they did.  Han is tortured by Vader and then frozen in carbonite, to be delivered into the hands of bounty hunter Boba Fett.

In the meantime, Luke has been undergoing Jedi training on Dagobah with Jedi Master Yoda, with the occasional appearance of Obi-Wan’s Force ghost.  Training has proceeded in fits and starts, when suddenly Luke has visions of the suffering of his friends.  Yoda and Obi-Wan warn him that he must stay to complete his training, else all is lost.  Luke, impetuous as ever, leaves Dagobah for Bespin (we’re never explicitly told how he knows where they are, but presumably he obtained this information in the vision–or maybe he had Artoo do the galaxy far, far away equivalent of a Web search), arriving just as Boba Fett flies off with a frozen Han.  At this point, I leave off–we all know the story from this point, “I am your father” and all.  The basic structure of the story has all the protagonists together at the beginning and (except for the kidnapped Han Solo) again at the end.  Through the bulk of the movie, though, they are in two different locations with two different plotlines unfolding.  In this lies the nature of the puzzle–the timelines don’t match.

The first timline is that of Han, Leia, Chewie, and Threepio.  We’ll call it Timeline F for “Falcon“, the ship on which they have all been travelling.  The script is never explicit, but from the time the crew of the Millennium Falcon leave Hoth to the time Han descends into the carbonite freezer, responding to Leia’s declaration of love with the iconic line, “I know,” no more than two or three days–or perhaps a week, at the very most–seems to have passed.  Certainly, when the Falcon arrives on Bespin, Han and Leia are wearing the same clothing they had on when they left Hoth.  They have time to change and rest a bit before the surprise meeting with Darth Vader, so they seem to have been on Bespin several hours by that time.  Later, Han is tortured, left with Leia for awhile, and then later taken to be frozen.  This might take place over the course of a day, or perhaps as little as a few hours.  The exact timing is unclear.  Still, it seems unreasonable, from the flow of the story and the events depicted, that Timeline F lasts for more than a week.

Now let’s look at Timeline L, Luke’s timeline.  After leaving Hoth, he flies to Dagobah.  Since he presumably has hyperdrive (we’ll come back to this in a bit), this is likely a short trip.  The remainder of Timeline L is spent on the swamp planet Dagobah as Luke trains under Yoda.  Now once more, the script is not explicit about duration.  However, it seems very clear from the context that Luke spends a considerable time in training.  We get an impression of weeks, at the very least, but more likely months.  Even a year is plausible.  This is what clicked with me as being a problem when I thought about the movie after having seen it.  During the time period in which the two groups of protagonists are separated from each other–we could call this Timeline S, for “separation”–only a few days seem to pass for Han, Leia, Chewie, and Threepio, whereas several months appear to elapse for Luke and Artoo.  The script doesn’t explicitly confirm this, but it’s obvious from even a cursory viewing.  Neither does the script attempt to explain this glaring discrepancy.  This is for one of three reasons.  The first is that it just didn’t occur to the scriptwriters (Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, working from a story by George Lucas).  The second is that it did occur to them and they ignored the problem in the grand old Hollywood fashion of saying, “Hey, it’s just a movie!  Why let little details get in the way of a good story?”  The third possibility is that they actually did have a rationale–the very rationale which I’m going to develop–and trusted the intelligence of the audience enough not to feel a need to explain it.  To be perfectly frank, I think the first or second possibility–most likely the first–is likeliest.  Still, even if they didn’t have a rationale worked out themselves, that’s what fan speculation is for, right?  Onward!

Let’s start by assembling what we know thus far.

  1. Up until the flight from Hoth, and again after the reunion on Bespin, all the characters are in the same timeline.
  2. During the time of separation (S) only a few days seem to pass for Han, Leia, and company (Timeline F).
  3. During the “same” time, weeks or months seem to pass for Luke, Artoo, and Yoda.
  4. At all points in the story, Luke’s X-wing fighter has a functional hyperdrive.
  5. Until the final escape from Darth Vader near the end of the movie, the Millennium Falcon does not have a functional hyperdrive.
  6. Hoth, Dagobah, and Bespin are all in different solar systems.

Points 1, 2, 3, and 5 are all obvious from the film itself.  I alluded to 4 above.  In the very first Star Wars (later subtitled A New Hope), when the Millennium Falcon drops out of hyperspace in the asteroid field that is all that remains of Alderaan, a TIE fighter appears and then zips off.  Han gives chase, remarking that it can’t get far, since it’s a short-range ship.  Over the course of the Star Wars franchise, it appears, without being stated, that the X-wing and Y-wing fighters of the Rebellion are close analogues in range, ability, and function to the various types of TIE fighter.  Based on this, if a TIE fighter is short-range, and thus incapable of hyperspace and interstellar travel, the same ought to be true of X-wing and Y-wing fighters.  However, in Empire (the script of which I’m consulting here. This differs slightly from the dialogue as shot, but I’ve checked the parts I’m quoting below against the movie, and they’re accurate), Luke clearly refers to the Dagobah system, indicating it is in a different solar system than Hoth.  Thus, to get there requires interstellar flight, which implies hyperdrive (at least, in the normal course of things).  I don’t recall clearly, but it seems to me that in later installments of the Star Wars franchise, large groups of ships, including very small ones–fighters, too, I think–are shown jumping into and out of hyperspace.  Thus, there seems to be no unambiguous canonical lower size limit on hyperdrive-equipped ships; at least no such limit that is consistently applied.

Point 6 seems relatively clear, although there are ambiguities.  As Luke leaves Hoth and Artoo questions the course he’s setting, Luke explicitly mentions the Dagobah system.  Clearly, then, Dagobah is in a different solar system than Hoth is.  How near or far it is, is not stated.  The implication, though, is that Dagobah is a little-visited galactic backwater.  Since the Galactic Empire covers–well, the entire galaxy–it is evident that at least some ships in the Star Wars universe are capable of crossing thousands of light years in a relatively short time via hyperdrive.  Thus, while Luke’s journey to Dagobah seems short, and while Dagobah is probably at least moderately distant from Hoth, we simply don’t know the relationship of the planets to each other.  Dagobah and Hoth may be a couple dozen light years apart, or on opposite sides of the galaxy.  Since Luke’s fighter is equipped with hyperdrive, the distance is more or less immaterial.

The situation with Han, Leia, Chewie, and Threepio is a bit more confusing.  After leaving Hoth and failing to jump to hyperspace, Han flees from the Imperial Star Destroyers by fleeing into an asteroid field.  After the Millennium Falcon and everyone in it are almost eaten alive by the exogorth, Han decides to take it back out of the asteroid field.  At this point, the sequence of events become somewhat muddled.

The editing and sequence of events shown from the escape from Hoth to this point lead us to believe that the asteroid field is in the Hoth system.  The Falcon seems to have flown just a short distance (relatively speaking) from Hoth before it encounters the asteroids.  If our solar system is par for the course–admittedly, we don’t know–then asteroid fields would be within a solar system, somewhere between the inner and outer regions of the solar system in question.  Mars, which is right before our asteroid belt as you head outward from the sun, is quite cold; thus, it’s quite plausible that Hoth (though evidently more habitable than Mars) is adjacent to an asteroid belt.  In any case, when the Falcon exits the asteroid field, it immediately encounters the Imperial forces again.  It’s unclear whether Han piloted the ship back the way he’d come from –that is, towards Hoth–or toward the far side of the field from Hoth.  The former would seem not to make much sense, as he’d be heading right back into the jaws of the Empire.  On the other hand, Imperial ships are awaiting him, wherever it was that he exits.  Perhaps there were ships stationed all around the inner and outer edges of the asteroid belt, just in case; or maybe the previous ships were able somehow to figure out which way the Falcon was going, and positioned themselves accordingly.  This seems more plausible–we see a scene of the massive ships plowing right through the asteroids with little harm, and the crew of the ships seem to be the same ones we’ve seen before.  Thus, we have every reason to believe that, regardless of which direction Han has flown through the asteroid field, he is still within the Hoth system.

When Han emerges from the asteroid belt, the Imperial ships are immediately after him.  In desperation, and knowing the ship can’t take many more direct hits, Han dives straight at one of Star Destroyers, braking at the last second and magnetically attaching the Millennium Falcon to the larger ship’s hull.  The Imperial commander, baffled by the seeming disappearance of the Millennium Falcon, assumes it is either long gone or destroyed.  After the Falcon has sat safely attached to the Star Destroyer for awhile, the following sequence ensues:

		Well, if they follow standard 
		Imperial procedure, they'll dump 
		their garbage before they go to 
		light-speed, then we just float 

		With the rest of the garbage.
		Then what?

		Then we've got to find a safe 
		port somewhere around here.  Got 
		any ideas?

		No.  Where are we?

		The Anoat system.

		Anoat system.  There's not much 

		No.  Well, wait.  This is 
		interesting.  Lando.

He points to a computer mapscreen on the control panel.  Leia slips out 
of her chair and moves next to the handsome pilot.  Small light points 
representing several systems flash by on the computer screen.

		Lando system?

		Lando's not a system, he's a man.
		Lando Calrissian.  He's a card 
		player, gambler, scoundrel.  You'd 
		like him.


		Bespin.  It's pretty far, but I 
		think we can make it.

			(reading from the 
		A mining colony?

This is a head-scratcher.  We have no reason to believe the asteroid field to be anywhere but in the Hoth system.  Even if Han left the asteroid field from the far side from Hoth, he’d still be well within the same system.  The chase and attachment ploy with the Imperial ship seems to have been done in a very short time over a relatively short distance–after all, the Falcon can’t outrun the Imperial ships, not can it last long against enemy blasters.  Once the Falcon has vanished, the fleet gives up, seems to come to a stop to dump the garbage, and then jumps away into hyperspace.  At no point in this sequence do we have any reason to believe that the fleet or the Falcon has left the Hoth system.  Despite this, after the fleet has left, Han states that they are in the Anoat system.  All the flying up to this point is at sublight speeds, since the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive is malfunctioning.  Given the maneuvering, it seems unlikely that the ships, especially the Falcon, are moving very fast (by spatial standards).  Even in crowded galactic clusters, separate solar systems are seldom nearer to each other than one half to one light-year.  The average distance of stars from each other is about five light-years.  These are implausible distances for ships traveling at substantially sublight speed!  According to the Wookiepedia, the Anoat system is between the Hoth and Bespin systems.  How canonical this is, I don’t know; but I’m suspicious.  For the scenario I want to paint, a third system besides that of Hoth and Bespin seems very implausible; so I’m going to toss the Anoat system for the time being, for reasons I’ll return to in a little while.

Therefore, I’m assuming that when the Imperial Fleet zips off into hyperspace, leaving the Millennium Falcon floating amidst Imperial junk, it is still, in fact, within the Hoth system.  Though Han does not say so in so many words, Bespin must certainly be in a separate star system than Hoth.  Certainly, even though the fleet has left, Han would be a fool to remain in the same system in which he was nearly blown to smithereens!  Thus, it’s implausible he’d set course for Bespin if it were in the Hoth system.  On the other hand, Han acknowledges that Bespin is “pretty far”.  That’s the understatement of the entire franchise!  Recall, once more, that the Millennium Falcon is limited to speeds slower than c, the speed of light.  Just for perspective, the unmanned Voyager probes, traveling at nearly forty thousand miles per hour (over fifteen thousand miles per hour faster than any humans have yet traveled), took forty years just to get to the edge of our own solar system.  One can imagine Han saying, “Settle in, Princess–it’s gonna be a long trip!”

Obviously, that’s not going to work.  We’re going to have to make an assumption about ships in the Star Wars universe, or at least about the Millennium Falcon.  We know that no ship, no matter how powerful, in the Star Wars universe can go faster than light without hyperdrive.  To give a brief explanation of the trope, “hyperspace” is space of more than the ordinary three dimensions we experience.  In the interpretation of hyperspace used in the Star Wars franchise, the idea is that the laws of physics are different in hyperspace than they are in ordinary three-dimensional space, and that in hyperspace, velocities vastly beyond that of light are possible.  Vastly, because if the Star Wars galaxy is as big as ours, it’s about a hundred thousand light-years across–which at the speed of the Voyager probe would take 1.7 billion years to traverse!  Hyperdrive at the very minimum must allow equivalent speeds of hundreds, maybe even thousands of light years per hour.  Not too shabby!

The question is, what is the greatest possible speed for a ship without hyperdrive?  We have no canonical answer to this.  The assumption I am going to make, then, is that a ship–or at least the Millennium Falcon–can move arbitrarily close to c.  That is, Han can accelerate his ship to 90% of the speed of light, or 99% or 99.9% or 99.999999999%–any speed at all as long as the last decimal point is never reached, since no material body (without some science fiction workaround such as hyperdrive) can ever reach c.  Given the energy requirements and relativistic mass (which we’ll explain shortly), this seems rather implausible; but then again, it’s science fiction, and it is a movie, so we’ll grant the crippled Falcon the ability to get as close to the speed of light, without reaching it, as its pilot likes.  What follows from this?  Interesting things!

According to Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, as an object approaches the speed of light, a number of things happen.  The most interesting are mass increase, foreshortening, and time dilation.  The first, mass increase, is exactly what it says it is.  As an object–a spaceship, for example–increasingly nears the speed of light, c, its mass would increase from the viewpoint of an outside observer (that’s important to note–the frame of reference matters.  To those onboard the ship, all masses would appear normal).  If the ship could reach lightspeed, its mass would be infinite  This, in a nutshell, is why it can’t reach lightspeed.  This is also why, as I mentioned above, the energy requirements would be implausible.  With increasing speed, the mass increases exponentially, and likewise the energy needed to move it.  Once more, though, we’ll assume, for the sake of the movie, that the Falcon has some energy source capable of producing such thrust.  The second effect of relativistic speeds, foreshortening, is where the length of the ship in the direction of motion shortens with increasing speed from the viewpoint of an external observer.  At the speed of light, an outside observer would see the ship as perfectly flat.  The last effect of high speed, time dilation, is well-known to science fiction aficionados.  Time for the ship, from the point of view of an external observer, slows down.  In short, if an outside observer could see into the ship’s ports, everyone would be moving in slow motion, more so the closer they came to the speed of light.  Thus, weeks or months to an outside observer might be days, hours, or even minutes to the crew of the ship.  At the speed of light itself, time would stop.  Once more, this is from the frame of reference of an outside viewer–to the crew of the ship, time would seem to pass normally.

This phenomenon is typically suggested as a solution for the very long times it would take for a ship, even if moving very close to the speed of light, to travel to distant stars.  If the ship moved fast enough, a trip of  years or centuries would be perhaps last only a few months for the crew.  Of course, a return home would be out of the question–a round trip to a star a hundred light-years away would take over two hundred years in Earth time, no matter how short it was by ship time; and by then, everyone the crew had ever known would be long dead.  Of course, this is what happened in the original Planet of the Apes in which Taylor and his crew experienced a subjective time of what seemed to be a few months, or perhaps a few years, arriving on what turned out to be Earth over a thousand years in the future.  In the case of the timeline of The Empire Strikes Back, we don’t need anything nearly as radical as that.  Time dilation neatly solves the problem of the divergent timelines.  Luke seemed to spend a year or so on Dagobah because he did spend a year or so on Dagobah.  Han, Leia, and the rest seemed to go from Hoth to Vader’s trap on Bespin in only a day or two because they did do that in a day or two.  Since the Millennium Falcon was flying without hyperdrive at a speed very close to that of light, time dilation ensured that what was a year to Luke was a couple of days to Han and Leia.  Problem solved!  Well, at least it’s solved in principle.  There are a few nuts-and-bolts aspect of it I still want to consider.

The first question is, exactly how fast does the Millennium Falcon have to be going for this scenario to work?  The tools we need to figure this out are the equations developed by Hendrik Lorentz and George FitzGerald.  Interestingly, they came up with the basic formulas independently, and before Einstein did his famous work.  Einstein found that their equations fit into his relativity theory, and used them for that purpose, while giving credit to their developers.  The second thing we have to do is to figure out the times involved for Timeline L (Luke) and Timeline F (the crew of the Falcon).  We have no way of knowing from either the script or the movie as filmed.  Therefore, I will make some arbitrary, but not unreasonable, assumptions.  I’m assuming that Luke Skywalker spends a year on Dagobah training with Yoda, and that the subjective time for Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO, from the time they leave Hoth to the time they arrive on Bespin, is two days.  I will not belabor you, dear readers, with the formulas or the calculations.  Those who are interested my see what I did on the sheet I uploaded here.  In this post, suffice it to say that if Han piloted the Millennium Falcon at 99.999% of the speed of light, the scenario I’ve posited–two days for the crew of the Falcon, a year for Luke–works.  That’s pretty fast, and in reality, the energetics of it seem implausible, as noted before; but remember, we’re assuming that in the Star Wars universe that ships, or at least the Millennium Falcon, can fly arbitrarily close to the speed of light as long as they don’t equal or exceed it.

Now obviously I’m making some arbitrary assumptions in this calculation.  I assumed that Luke stayed on Dagobah for a year, and that the subjective time of the Millennium Falcon’s trip was two days.  I think a year on Dagobah is reasonable, but one might plausibly argue for six months.  I don’t think a time less than that would make sense; but more than a year seems unlikely, too.  If Luke was on Dagobah for six months, then Leia is a mere six months younger than he is.  However, if the Falcon was in flight for only six months, that would imply that the distance between the Hoth and Bespin systems was a mere half-light-year.  Especially given that the movie does not depict those planets as being in a dense stellar cluster, I think this isn’t likely.  Even if it were, I doubt Han would make for a system a mere half-light-year away.  I would argue for at least a light-year of separation, and thus a year of training with Yoda for Luke.  As to the subjective flight time onboard the Falcon between Hoth and Bespin, one could plausibly argue that, instead of it being two days, as I assume, it could be a single day, twelve hours, or even as short as six hours.  All these differing assumptions would require different calculations.  They would all result in speeds for the Millennium Falcon very close to that of light, however; and the difference would be merely a matter of the number of nines in the decimal places.  The Falcon would be going very fast in any scenario.

One interesting side effect of all this, by the way, is that it ends up illustrating the famous Twin Paradox.  The Twin Paradox has two twins, one who stays on Earth and the other who makes a journey through space at near the speed of light.  When the spacefaring twin returns, he will find himself younger than his stay-at-home twin because of time dilation.  In The Empire Strikes Back, this actually happens.  Recall that Luke and Leia are twins (though this is not revealed until Return of the Jedi).  In the scenario I’ve discussed here, Luke experiences at least a year of time more than Leia does.  Thus, when they reunite, though they are still twins, Luke is a year older than Leia.  Physics in action!

To return to the main narrative, if the Millennium Falcon is traveling at 99.999% of lightspeed, then of course, Boba Fett’s ship, the Slave I, must have the same capabilities as the Millennium Falcon, since Fett evidently followed the Falcon at subluminal speed.  This brings us to a stickier question, though.  As soon as Boba Fett (who evidently was suspicious to begin with) realizes the Falcon has not been destroyed and can see where it is, why didn’t he immediately hail the Imperial Fleet to come and intercept it?  With superluminal capability, they could certainly have easily done so within minutes.  For that matter, why didn’t he directly attack the Falcon himself?  What gives?  I don’t think that’s a hard question to answer, though.

Remember, Boba Fett is out for himself, period.  He wants a living Han Solo so he can make a nice profit from Jabba the Hut.  Fett also doesn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.  He has no problem with treachery and violence; but he doesn’t want to risk his own neck without any need to do so.  He knows Solo’s reputation, and is no doubt aware of the Millennium Falcon’s capabilities.  If he openly attacks the Falcon in a fair fight, even with the element of surprise, he might well lose.  The Slave I certainly does not seem to be heavily armed.  Even if Boba Fett won such a battle, he might well kill Han Solo in the process, therefore losing his big, fat paycheck.  Better to maintain stealth and follow them unawares.

Why not call the Empire?  I don’t think it’s ever established whether or not ships in regular space can hail ships in hyperspace–we know ships can’t be tracked in hyperspace, so I personally doubt they can communicate in hyperspace, either.  If this is the case, then since the fleet just jumped into hyperspace, Boba Fett can’t hail them.  We just don’t know for sure, though.  Even if Fett can’t hail the fleet, surely the Empire has outposts that he could easily reach, which would relay the signal to some Imperial ships that would be available.  Still, though, this would not be in his best interests.  The fleet just spent a considerable time trying to blow the Millennium Falcon out of space; and if Boba Fett calls them back, they may well succeed.  There would go Fett’s bounty!  Alternately, the fleet might manage to cripple the ship and take it onboard one of the Star Destroyers.  From there, they may not surrender Han to Fett.

From Fett’s point of view, waiting would be the most prudent course.  He’s aware that several months or more will pass in the galaxy outside–this will whet Jabba’s appetite for capturing Han even more.  It may also make the Empire more desperate and thus more compliant.  Fett’s in it for the money, so taking a year in external time for his mission won’t bother him at all.  He no doubt plots the Falcon’s course and sees it’s heading to Bespin.  Better to wait a few hours and then have the ship’s computer send a message to Darth Vader himself, timed to arrive a few days ahead of their arrival at Bespin, external time.  Fett is one of the bounty hunters Vader spoke to earlier, and he may have negotiated with him in the past.  Either way, Fett offers Vader the opportunity to take charge of the situation personally.  This means there will be no shootout–just a small Imperial detachment waiting on Bespin for Han’s arrival.  Vader will be there, so Fett can speak to him personally to make sure he gets his man.  Fett will get Han Solo, and thus his money from Jabba the Hut; Vader will get the others to use to set a trap for Luke Skywalker; and this can all be done with minimal fuss.  Boba Fett is quite prudent to work it the way he does, I think.

We’ve looked at most of the issues at hand by now; but what of the aforementioned Anoat system?  As I see it, there are two explanations.  If we are going to be good little girls and boys and cleave strictly to canon, then based on Han’s statement that they are in the Anoat system immediately after the pursuit by the Imperial fleet, we must assume that they began in the Hoth system, were pursued into the Anoat system, and flew from there to the Bespin system.  If we stay with a total travel time from Hoth to Bespin of one year, then we have to assume that the Anoat system is between the Hoth and Bespin systems; that Hoth and Bespin are a light year apart; and that Anoat is about a half-light-year from Hoth, and a similar distance from Bespin.  The scenario then would be that the chase of the Falcon by the Imperial fleet took place at nearly lightspeed–probably even faster than 99.999% of lightspeed–and ended up in the Anoat system after six months Galactic time, or only a few minutes, subjective time.  After evading the fleet, Han flies the Falcon another six months Galactic time and maybe a day or two subjective time to the Bespin system.

I doubt this scenario.  It implies implausibly fast speeds for a chase full of evasive maneuvers; and it makes the unlikely assumption that Hoth, Anoat, and Bespin are each spaced at half-light-year intervals.  Far likelier, in my view, that Han flies directly from the Hoth system to the Bespin system, and that they’re about a light-year apart . How do we explain the remark about Anoat, then?  Here’s my headcanon on that:

First, the Anoat system is close to the Hoth system, but in the opposite direction.  That is, Anoat is about a light-year from Hoth going in one direction, and Bespin is about a light-year from Hoth in the other direction.  Second, not only was the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive disabled, but its computer system was also glitched out.  Thus, the initial reading the computer gives indicates–incorrectly–that the Falcon is in the Anoat system.  Han is surprised that the chase has taken them as far afield as Anoat, but he doesn’t show it, since his priority is to figure out where they need to go to avoid the Empire.  As Leia speaks to Han, saying, “Anoat system.  There’s not much there,” the computer recalculates and gives  their correct location, somewhere within the Hoth system.  Han notes this and is relieved that the computer is giving him accurate information.  He is about to give their correct location to Leia, when he notices their proximity to the Bespin system on the readout, and his attention is riveted.  Instead of giving Leia their correct location, he says, “No.  Well, wait.  This is interesting.  Lando.”  He proceeds to set a course to the Bespin system, about a light-year away.

This interpretation requires just a little tweaking of the original; but I think it is reasonably plausible.  More importantly, I think it results in the most likely interpretation of the events of the movie. Therefore, I, for one, am going with it.

Thus, I think we’ve solved the timeline mysteries of The Empire Strikes Back.  The only remaining problem is that it might be argued that it’s odd that no one remarks on any of this in the movies–e.g., why Han, Leia, and crew were gone so long while the rest of the Rebel fleet was making its rendezvous.  That’s not really hard, though.  In a galaxy in which interstellar flight has existed for presumably thousands of years, there will obviously be times when sub-light speed will be necessary, for various reasons, with all the relativistic effects on time that that entails.  Thus, such paradoxes and time lines would be taken for granted.  Presumably if one turns up somewhere after being gone a long time but appearing much younger, it’s automatically understood that they were flying sub-light, for whatever reason.  It’s also probable that given the situation, the Rebels would have assumed the Millennium Falcon and crew were traveling sub-light, since they’d heard no report of it being captured or destroyed.  In a galaxy where weird physics is possible, you no longer think of it as weird.

In summary, I make no claims to originality on any of this.  Here, for example, is an article from 2015 discussing the same issue that I did here.  The authors there assume that neither the Falcon nor Luke’s X-wing had hyperdrive, and make different assumptions about distances, coming to the conclusion that Leia is two years older than Luke.  Their math is sound, but I think the assumptions they make are wrong; and they certainly don’t seem to fit the flow of the plot as my hypothesis here does.  The movie is thirty-eight years old as of this writing, so I don’t doubt that others have done an analysis of Empire in light of the physics of relativity; but I’ve never encountered or read any such analyses.  Maybe someone has done a better job at it than I; but I hope that I have managed to contribute a little bit to this corner of Star Wars lore, and that you have all enjoyed it!

Posted on 15/07/2018, in Entertainment, mathematics, movies, physics, pop culture, science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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