So how fast is the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive, anyway?
We know—unlike Obi-Wan Kenobi, seriously wizard don’t you read SmugglerFeed?—that this is the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. But we also know that a parsec is a measure of distance, and since Han doesn’t specify how long it took the Falcon to make this sub-12 parsec shortcut, we don’t actually get an idea as to how fast the ship can go.
Oh, but she’ll do “.5 past light speed” which…doesn’t tell us much either. Obviously ships in the Star Wars galaxy can go faster than light speed otherwise there’d be no movie, but how fast is .5 on their hyperdrive scales in terms of light years traversed per day?
This train of thought was kicked off after I stumbled across an old diagram on Slate that compares the speeds of several different spacecraft in genre fiction. I was surprised to see the Falcon beat out nearly every other ship and especially surprised to see how much faster Han’s craft can go in comparison to the fastest ship that the Star Trek franchise’s Starfleet can muster. While growing up watching Star Trek I always got excited when the crew took the ship to warp 9 and beyond because now…now we were going fast! In my head, the Falcon and the Enterprise could equal each other’s speed if pushed to their limits, so it was surprising to see the Falcon leave it so completely in the dust.
The Slate diagram admits that its speed for the Falcon is an assumption since the evidence for it is so scanty. This is in contrast to the speed limits assigned to starships in the Star Trek universe, which are precisely detailed. For example, the warp speed scale from Star Trek: The Next Generation has a starship climb in speed gradually until topping out at Warp 9, at which point speeds increases exponentially. This means that a speed like Warp 9.5 would actually be 50% faster than Warp 9 (essentially what you would get by adding the speed of Warp 9 and Warp 5 together). Even at Warp 9, it takes a day to travel just 4 light years. Here’s the scale from Memory Alpha:
Calculated speed (*c)
||Distance traveled in 24 hours (*light years)||Travel time from Earth to Alpha Centauri|
Obviously, Star Trek’s “.5” is different than Star Wars’ “.5”. The former’s doesn’t even make it past light speed, for one, and the latter touts the number as an example of top speed within all spaceships commercially available in the galaxy. While Star Trek puts .5 at the bottom of its faster-than-light scale, Star Wars puts it near or at the top.
This is where my attempt to deduce how fast the Falcon is runs into the barrier between fiction and reality, even though I’m already talking about a theoretical concept within a piece of fiction. George Lucas obviously didn’t have any underlying factual worldbuilding worked out when he wrote A New Hope and it’s clear that it was never his intent to do so. He wanted to tell a story about spiritual forces, empires and rebellions, daring fighter pilots, and hero’s journeys. Everything that could possibly call for a measured explanation, like a lightsaber, a space station the size of a moon, or the speed of the Millennium Falcon, was thought up in service of the spectacle of the Star Wars epic. The only explanation behind having Han establish “.5 past light speed” as the Falcon’s speed is that it makes Han sound cool. “.5” is an arbitrary number and doesn’t signify a scale or speed.
But it circles back in a neat way with what I’m about to investigate, so keep it in mind.
Since we don’t have any testimony as to how fast the Falcon can go, we’re left piecing together its speed through clues left in the narrative. To do that we need a sequence in the movies where the Falcon takes a hyperdrive journey that we can fit within a range of time. For this purpose, the trip from Tatooine to Alderaan in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope provides an ideal example. Its placement in the first movie in the saga sets up a precedent for the Falcon’s speed that has not (yet) been superseded. Because of that, we can consider the conclusions we draw from this example as close to “canon” as we are liable to get.
As we see in the movie, the trip from Tatooine to Alderaan is made almost entirely and continuously via hyperspace; not in an irregular series of jumps like the Falcon’s pursuit through the asteroid belt in The Empire Strikes Back. We can also infer that Han is flying the ship through hyperspace at top speed since A.) That is what Luke and Obi-Wan are paying for, and due to the urgency of Leia’s message Obi-Wan would insist on top speed. B.) Han is eager to collect the sizable fee Obi-Wan promised him once they reach Alderaan, since Jabba has demonstrably marked him for death if Han doesn’t pay up, and soon. Finally, we get scenes from within the Falcon during the trip, giving us a minimum time of how long it spends in hyperspace, plus a theoretical maximum given the occupants and size of the ship.
So we have a range of time but now we need a distance and for this we’ll need to consult supporting material of a wide range of canonicity. First, we’ll need a map. Specifically, we’ll need the latest map of the Star Wars galaxy, contained in the official Star Wars Essential Atlas.
But hold on…how do we know this map is canon and that the locations of Alderaan and Tatooine are where they were always envisioned to be? The authors of The Essential Atlas, Daniel Wallace and David Fry, answer the first question on their own site, where you can take a walk through the various LucasFilm-approved sections of the map, including planets that were added at LucasFilm’s suggestion.
The location of Alderaan and Tatooine can be confirmed as correct (as far as fictional galaxies go) as well because, well, they’ve never been located anywhere else in relation to each other. Each canon and non-canon Star Wars map has placed Alderaan at the northeast corner of the Core (speaking in terms of a top-down view) with Tatooine on a diagonal to the southeast in the Outer Rim. LucasFilm has had numerous instances to correct the placement and never has, therefore we can assume that their positions within the galaxy are correct.
The Essential Atlas map satisfies these requirements and is the most up to date. But, even when enlarged, the above image of this map is too small for us to detail through this post where Alderaan and Tatooine are. If you have the book handy, Aldeeran is in the Core, at the top left corner of square M10. Tatooine is in the Outer Rim, at the bottom of square R16.
Here’s a section including the two planets plus the distance between them:
It looks like most of the way between the two planets consists of established space lanes, which is handy for our purposes. It assures us that the Falcon traveling at top speed would have been a simple affair since the route is mostly established and clear of stars, supernovas, asteroid fields, and other objects that would require trickier navigation.
The route also forms a familiar shape!
It’s a right triangle! And thanks to the magic of the Earthly Pythagoras, that means we can calculate (c), shown above as the rough route the Falcon took in A New Hope, by knowing the distance of (a) and (b). And that’s where this Essential Atlas map really shines.
According to Wookieepedia, the Star Wars galaxy is 120,000 light years in diameter. It’s a big galaxy, bigger than our own, which clocks in at 100,000 light years across, but smaller than the monstrous Andromeda Galaxy, which covers 200,000 light years at its widest. This number comes from the Atlas as well and while the book could really say whatever it wants in regards to the size of the Star Wars galaxy, we can grant certain qualities to the galaxy from what we saw at the end of The Empire Strikes Back and from a library map we saw in Attack of the Clones. Our heroes live and struggle in a big galaxy, big enough to have dwarf galaxies orbiting it, so a light-year diameter in the six figures is not at all unusual to postulate.
If we accept the 120,000 light year measurement then that means we can use the map from The Essential Atlas to measure distance within it, since it comes pre-gridded into squares. Whoo! Specifically, the Star Wars galaxy is 22 squares tall by 23 squares wide. If 23 squares is as long as the galaxy gets, then we just divide 120,000 by 23 to determine that each square is 5,217.39 light years on each side.
In the above triangle, (a) is roughly 5.8 squares tall and (b) is roughly 5 squares across. If a square is 5,217.39 light years on each side, then (a) = 5.8 x 5,217.39, or 30,260.86 light years. By the same measure, (b) equals 26,086.95 light years.
Now that we have (a) and (b), we can use the Pythagorean Theorem to find the hypotenuse, otherwise known as (c), otherwise known as the distance Han, Luke, and company traveled between Tatooine and Alderaan.
Help us out, Pyramid Head.
(Pssst, it’s a squared plus b squared = c squared.)
Thanks to our dark eldritch powers of basic geometry, we can determine that (c) equals 39953.08 light years.
Since their journey doesn’t exactly follow the hypotenuse and takes a concave route, let’s GO DEEPER and split their journey out into more exact segments.
These two triangles and three segments follow the major galactic traffic routes except for the segments departing Tatooine and approaching Alderaan, at which point I assumed they cut straight across “rural” space on access routes too small to visualize in the map. Measured out in Photoshop, each square of 5217.39 light years is 5/8ths of an inch, which means 1/8th of an inch equals 1043.478 light years, which gives us a small enough scale to be more exact when measuring the distance of their route.
When measuring and tallying everything up, the Tatooine to Alderaan route is 50855 light years long. (50855.07573743552 light years, actually.)
Now that we have a distance, we can create a formula that will allow us to plug in times to determine the Falcon’s likely speed!
The top number is light years. (t)d = The number of days. (MF)d = How many light years the Millennium Falcon travels per day. Plugging any number into (t)d will get you an answer. If you want to get more precise, you can then divide (MF)d by 24 to get how many light years the Falcon travels per hour.
This is an easy formula to plug into a spreadsheet, so let’s see how the numbers work out.
With our answers above, we can now spot out a likely range of the Falcon’s speed based on how much time we think Luke and Obi-Wan spent hanging around with Han and Chewie. We know they’re on board for at least a few hours, because they’re killing time playing chess and training with lightsabers. It’s also conceivable they’re on board for a full day. At most, one could probably say they were traveling for five or six days, because any longer would stretch credibility in terms of fuel, food, and other resources. It also seems unlikely that the events we see happening on the Death Star would take longer than that, though it’s possible. Finally, from a character standpoint, Lucas would have probably written the characters differently if he was insistent that they were in space together for more than a work week. They’d be more familiar with each other, for one, and less distrusting of the abilities of the other after having had sufficient time to get to know each other.
So let’s say they were on the Falcon for 1 to 5 days, with it being more likely that they were on board for only a day or two. Any longer stretches credibility in the movie and any shorter, well, any shorter most likely results in the Falcon’s destruction!
The results we get from the speed formula become very interesting once you pass the threshold of a single day. The increase between light years spanned becomes drastically larger even as the decrease between time shortens. Observe the results graphed out:
Once the Falcon makes the Tatooine-to-Alderaan trip in less than two days then the speed increases dramatically per hour. If you shave off one day then the Falcon’s speed doubles and you become capable of traversing nearly half of the galaxy in that day. Shave off 12 hours and you can span almost the entire galaxy in that time. Past that, the ship jumps straight out of the galaxy itself.
Before that increase, though, the Falcon’s speed becomes untenable, as hyperdrive becomes too fast to allow the ship and its occupants themselves to react to any possible sudden dangers. You are flying faster than you can actually think, possibly faster than any automatic system can shut down and restart, and faster than the ship’s mechanisms can move to alter course and thrust. The Falcon would constantly be starting and stopping several times a minute just to navigate around gravitational obstacles that would otherwise destroy it, and we obviously don’t see that happening.
In essence, this “speed-of-thought” limit also directs how fast a hyperdrive can be, and the Falcon taking less than a day to go from Tatooine to Alderaan breaks that limit. Since we’ve determined a limit past which all ships in the Star Wars galaxy couldn’t go, or rather shouldn’t go, we can take another look at Han’s boast that his ship will do “.5 past light speed.” Giving Obi-Wan and Luke a number implies that hyperdrive technology in the Star Wars galaxy hasn’t yet become capable of going fast enough to hit the “speed-of-thought” limit. Otherwise, wouldn’t Han just say something more general, like, “She’ll go as fast as universally possible. That’ll get you where you’re going”? It’s easy to believe that Han has one of the fastest ships in the galaxy, but it’s doubtful that Han has the fastest ship possible.
So let’s revise our estimate to better fit the graph above. Since the curve accelerates too fast past the Day 2 mark, let’s say that the Falcon made the trip, at top hyperspace speed, in between 2 and 3 days. Since it probably wasn’t exactly 2 days (they’d be asleep upon hitting Alderaan, wouldn’t they?) then let’s round down to get an exact number. This is still an arbitrary number, because I like a clean, round numbers, but it’s within the likely range of speed for the ship:
The Millennium Falcon’s top speed is 25,000 light years per day, 1041.66 light years per hour.
So there we have it. If this is the top speed for Han’s ship, and it represents a max speed for all commercially available starcraft in the galaxy, then it gives a believable range of speed that allows for the actions we witness in all 6 released Star Wars movies, as well as a majority of the Expanded Universe “Legends” stories.
Heck, it could even make Han’s “.5” comment make sense. If “.5” is shorthand for “25,000 light years per day” then .4 could be 20,000 light years per day, .3 could be 15,000 light years per day, and so on. Being able to do “1 past light speed” would mean you’re traveling more than 50,000 light years per day, which is past the likely “speed-of-thought” limit, making 1 unattainable. This is very similar to the Star Trek warp scale chart in use from Next Generation and onwards. Warp 1 through 9 follows the same scale of increase, but then past Warp 9 speed increases drastically as time shortens, leading to a drastic curve up to Warp 10, which is infinite velocity, and just as unattainable as “1” would be.
Still, 25,000 light years per day is tremendously fast, even by fictional Faster-Than-Light Drive standards. Even if our galaxy was impossibly distant from theirs, at a truly far far away distance of 100 million light years away (By comparison, the Andromeda Galaxy is “only” 2.5 million light years away.) then a generation ship from the Star Wars galaxy with the Falcon’s engine would still only need 11 years to get to Earth.
Maybe that’s why it took this long to get a real sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy.