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Poster detail
A detail from the poster of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” shows Starkiller Base. (Lucasfilm / Disney)

Spoiler Alert! This post doesn’t reveal any major plot twists, but it does explore a significant element of the new movie. Stop reading now if you want it to remain a surprise.

X-wing fighter technology hasn’t changed all that much in 30 years, but one of the threats unveiled in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” suggests that the dark side has upped its game when it comes to plasma physics.

How else do you explain a planet-sized Death Star that apparently sucks up super-hot star stuff and puts it in storage to unleash upon entire planetary systems? That requires one heck of a magnetic confinement chamber.

It’s not much of a spoiler to reflect on just how big the facility known as Starkiller Base is, considering that “Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams discussed the concept with Entertainment Weekly a month ago.

“It is very much — and it’s acknowledged as such in the movie — apparently another Death Star,” Abrams said. “But what it’s capable of, how it works, and what the threat is, is far greater than what the Death Star could have done.”

The concept has been discussed in advance reports about the movie for a couple of months now, and it’s already capturing imaginations: Variety reports that developers are planning to build a 330-foot-high Starkiller Base installation in Abu Dhabi.

Starkiller Base is to “The Force Awakens” as the Death Star was to “Star Wars: A New Hope” – which means you can count on physics geeks to figure out just how much power it consumes, and just how expensive it’d be to build one. (One economist calculated that the failure of the $15.6 septillion Death Star development effort would have increased the risk of a post-Palpatine financial crisis in the “Star Wars” galaxy.)

In science fiction, the power-generating technologies at the top end of the scale include antimatter engines and vacuum energy. Lately there’s been lots of speculation about Dyson spheres, energy-absorbing alien megastructures that could theoretically be built around stars. But the fact that stellar plasma has something to do with revving up Starkiller Base points instead toward magnetic confinement fusion.

Fusion is the energy reaction that powers the sun and hydrogen bombs. Under conditions of extreme pressure and temperature, hydrogen nuclei fuse, creating helium atoms plus neutrons. A smidgen of extra mass is converted into energy — as expressed by E=mc2, Albert Einstein’s famous equation. One pound of fusion fuel could produce the same amount of energy as 10 million pounds of fossil fuel.

We puny Earthlings are still trying to create vessels capable of containing plasma — that is, super-hot hydrogen gas — within magnetic fields under the conditions required for fusion. Roughly speaking, you’d have to achieve a temperature of 200 million to 400 degrees Fahrenheit for at least a couple of seconds.

The international ITER project in France is aiming to demonstrate a net-gain controlled fusion reaction sometime in the 2020s. Some private ventures hope to accelerate the move to commercial fusion power. But it’s clear that the bad guys in charge of the First Order figured it out a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

In response to complaints about spoilerification, we’ve tweaked the headline and lead paragraph of this story to make references to Starkiller Base less specific. And yes, we know “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is only a movie. Check out “A Star for Us,” a downloadable comic book from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, for a graphic explanation of the fusion quest.

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