The Physics of the Speeder Chase in ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’

I make it my job to hunt through all the best trailers and find some cool physics thing to explore. In this case, it’s the trailer for Solo: A Star Wars Story—the Han Solo-led movie, scheduled to come out in May, that takes place some time before Episode IV: A New Hope. Right at the beginning, we see Han driving some type of speeder in a chase scene, taking a super-sharp turn with another speeder in pursuit. Here’s the interesting physics stuff: Notice how it looks like it is sliding around the curve? Why does it do that? Is that how you would actually drive a make-believe speeder?

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To answer these questions, we need to think about the nature of forces. Suppose I push on some object at rest such that my push is the only significant force on that object. This could happen with a boat sitting in still water, a hockey puck on ice, or a small spacecraft out in deep space (don’t worry about how that object got into space). What does the object do? A common answer will be to say that the object moves. That’s not wrong, but “move” is not the best answer. With a constant a force, an object increases in speed—that is to say, it accelerates. Acceleration is a measure of the change in velocity of an object, so we could also say that a force changes an object’s velocity. That’s key.

There’s one more really important idea to understand—velocity is a vector. A vector is a quantity in which the direction matters (other vectors are: force, gravitational field, position). If a quantity doesn’t depend on direction, we call that a scalar (like time or mass or electric charge). Since forces change velocity and velocity depends on direction, this means that it takes a force to change the direction of a velocity. Or you could say it takes a force to turn Han Solo’s speeder.

How about a demonstration to show you how this works? Suppose I take a bowling ball and roll it along the floor (everyone should have a bowling ball handy for physics demos). This ball will essentially act like an object moving with a constant velocity since the frictional force is small. I want to make this ball change directions by hitting it with a stick. Which way should I hit it? Watch this.

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