As the biggest Disney fan, I have long awaited the arrival of Disney+. Along with classic musicals and historic animated shorts, the platform also contains some of the biggest franchises around, including the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and of course the entire Star Wars back catalog. Launched on 24th March 2020, coinciding nicely with the start of the UK’s COVID-19 ‘lockdown’, the first thing I devoured was The Mandalorian, and with it, every Baby Yoda meme I could get my hands on.
The Mandalorian is a new series set in the Star Wars universe, five years after the end of the original (and let’s just say it, best) trilogy, and two and a half decades before the latest and final trilogy of the Skywalker saga started with The Force Awakens. Din Djarin is a bounty hunter from the planet Mandalore, sporting a uniform we have seen on Boba Fett. Although they shared a job description, Fett Junior was not technically a Mandalorian. Instead, he is a clone of Jango Fett, and did not grow up on Mandalore, confirming that the way of the Mandalorian is a culture, a way of living, and not a species, race or religion. The series explores this culture in greater detail, with the famous armor playing a major role.
In The Mandalorian, Djarin is paid for missions in bars of Beskar steel. This sacred material is used to make a Mandalorian’s armor, which is crafted by expert armorers that know how to work this material. Are there any parallels to materials that we know of in a galaxy closer to home? Let’s take a closer look at the material properties of Beskar steel.
Beskar steel is handled as cast ingots. The dull, slate gray bars of Beskar steel have wavey ridges and patterns on the surface, and are stamped with the Imperial shield of Palpatine’s empire. Armor made of Beskar is highly sought after as it is an extremely robust material, able to withstand blaster shots and lightsaber strikes. It must therefore also be light enough to be worn for prolonged periods of time. We know that the material can be melted in a hot furnace and cast into shapes. It can be worked with heat and hammering. It is malleable enough in a thin, heated form to be shaped into panels, which make it a perfect choice for armor.
Plate armor made of panels has been used for thousands of years, though the full suit of armor dates back to the Late Middle Ages. Steel, an alloy of iron and carbon, was commonly used as it can be easily forged, hammered, shaped and cut. It is also stronger than iron, owing to the fact that the carbon ‘impurities’ in the steel prevent the iron atoms from sliding past one another, giving rise to a tougher, less brittle material. Beskar certainly seems to have similar properties, and so we can presume that it is a metal, and indeed a form of steel as its name suggests.
Armor needs to be light, but also strong. Sadly not enough research has been conducted on lightsabers here on Earth, so it is hard to vouch for the resistance regular steel would have against such a space sword, however it is possible to engineer steel to be reasonably blaster-proof. For example, stainless steel, an alloy of iron, carbon and some chromium, cannot catch fire easily – handy for us here on Earth, given that we cook food inside stainless steel vessels. It can therefore be presumed that Beskar steel would also be able to withstand blaster fire, especially as they tend to emit cooler yellow flames.
The biggest clue as to whether there is a material analogous to Beskar steel here on Earth is the patterning on each ingot. These waves and ridges of alternating light and dark colours are a trademark of a real material that is known for its strong, light properties, just like Beskar steel. Wootz steel is a high-carbon content steel originating from south India and Sri Lanka. It is formed by heating iron ore to a high temperature in the presence of carbon-containing plants such as bamboo. The resultant smoky fire ensures a high content of iron carbide in the steel formed this way. Though iron carbide is a brittle substance, when incorporated into the bulk of the steel, it ensures that blades made of Wootz steel remain sharp. The burnt bamboo and other plant matter also imparts a little nanotechnology into the mix, ensuring that this steel is stronger and lighter than any other.
Tiny nanoscopic carbon structures, such as straw-like carbon nanotubes and football-shaped fullerenes, are created in sooty fires. These nanostructures are very strong, but also incredibly light. When embedded within the steel, they make the steel even stronger, reducing the brittle nature of the steel even further, without adding any bulk.
Wootz steel ingots were also used to make Damascus steel blades, which were said to be so strong, they would never shatter. Crucially however, Damascus steel and Wootz steel both display very similar wavy patterns to Beskar steel. In Wootz and Damascus steel, these patterns are formed by folding and working the steel, so that iron carbide layers line up, creating intricate patterns. These patterns were historically somewhat of a trademark, though modern techniques now allow metallurgists to create a range of bespoke and intricate designs.
Although the events of the Star Wars universe took place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the science does seem to confirm that a form of Beskar steel exists in our time too. Now, if someone could hurry up with those lightsabers, it really would make my lockdown gardening so much easier…