If you want to build the massive Death Star seen in the movie "Star Wars," you may want to talk to Brian Muirhead, the chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
"If one wanted to build a death star, you didn't build it by launching a bunch of stuff off a planet," Muirhead says, in a new video from Wired.
Instead of the Empire's way of putting together a massive planet-killing space station through slave labor and materials brought in from throughout the galaxy, Muirhead thinks there's a much more natural way to get the job done: Use an asteroid.
"It could provide the metals, the organic compounds, you have water," he says. "All the building blocks you would need."
Muirhead has more than just a passing interest in asteroids.
He's working on NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission, an initiative to land a robot on an asteroid near Earth, use it to remove a boulder from the asteroid's surface, and then position it in a stable orbit around the moon so we can study and mine it.
Though it's important to note that NASA isn't looking to use asteroids to destroy planets, but rather, to "protect Earth if needed in the future" by showing they can visit, land on, and potentially deflect an asteroid if it was heading on a path to Earth.
NASA would send astronauts to land on and explore the asteroid while it's in orbit around the moon — sometime after 2020 — and they'd ultimately bring back samples to study.
In order to navigate an asteroid field, the spacecraft that would deliver the boulder-grabbing machine needs the ability to sense something ahead and react quickly — a capability that the Millennium Falcon of "Star Wars" seems to have nailed down.
NASA's not quite that advanced. "That's a hard problem," Muirhead says.
They're working on it, though. The Dawn spacecraft is out in space studying objects around the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but since it's flying pretty slow (relatively speaking) and there's plenty of space between those gigantic rocks, it can make it through just fine without a scratch.
But to have the ability to maneuver as well as the Falcon, Muirhead explains, you need to perfect the ion propulsion engines it uses, which NASA has been working on since the 1950s.
Dawn, which is currently in space, uses three ion propulsion engines, though they have far less thrust than what you've seen in "Star Wars."