The Death Star Firepower Fallacy

(See also the new and improved version.)


The Death Star is clearly the one supreme destructive force in either galaxy. This vessel can single-handedly destroy a planet in a matter of seconds, which is a task that would take 30 ships of a roughly Federation technology level hours to accomplish ("The Die is Cast"[DS9]).

Unfortunately, instead of taking this fact at face value and moving on, many pro-Wars debaters attempt to claim gargantuan firepower levels for the Death Star far beyond what is supported by the canon. Why? Because General Dodonna says in ANH that the Death Star has more firepower than half the starfleet. Of course, the fact that the surface of the Death Star was absolutely lousy with turbolaser emplacements is lost on the Warsies, who assume that the quote refers to the large superlaser, which the Warsies claim (based on a non-canon quote) is just a big turbolaser anyway. The point of inflating the Death Star numbers, though, is that the bigger the numbers for the Death Star, the bigger the numbers for the whole of the fleet. Warsies will not only reach into the depths of the non-canon works while ignoring the canon to support this view, but will also ignore the evidence of their eyes.

The common way they calculate the firepower is by using the gravitational binding energy of a planet like Earth. Sounds like a good idea, no fault so far. All the mass on the planet exerts gravitational force on all the rest of the mass, and the gravitational binding energy is the mathematical representation of the strength of this force. On an Earth-like world, this calculates out to somewhere in the neighborhood of 2e32 joules, and Warsies claim this as a minimum energy that the Death Star had to put into the planet in a matter of moments for it to be destroyed.

That's 200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules.

In the face of such a mind-bogglingly large number, let's get some perspective. A 100-watt lightbulb puts out 100 joules per second. The sun only puts out 3.86e26 joules per second. Assuming you could collect the energy put out by the entire sun and convert it into a laser with 100 percent efficiency, you would still have to wait 143.9 hours to get 2e32 joules out of the sun. But, hey, what's waiting a week when you can blow a planet, right? Unfortunately, it is not so. Warsies also factor in the speed of the debris seen flying away from the planet, for upper-limit figures in the 1e38J range. That's 1 with 38 zeroes. Assuming you had the sun as a battery, you'd still have to wait 259,067,357,512 seconds, or about 8,200 years.

"Well," the Warsies say, "this simply proves that Star Wars reactor technology is far superior to anything Trek has come up with."

Alas, that isn't so, either.

There are three problems, all interlinked:

"Space filled temporarily with trillions of microscopic metal fragments, propelled past the retreating ships by the liberated energy of a small artificial sun"(ANH Novel). So, according to the canon, the now-defunct Death Star I, the only Death Star we've seen to destroy a planet, is powered by "a small artificial sun". That, friends and neighbors, is fusion power . . . hydrogen fusing into helium. Even if you squished the sun's 1.4 billion kilometer diameter bulk into a little Death Star sphere 120 kilometers in diameter, you're still going to have to wait a few years for the superlaser to charge. However, unless ANH was a movie spanning several years, I didn't see that happen.

The second problem comes with the description of how the Death Star does its work. "Theoretically, no weapon could penetrate the exceptionally dense stone of the ancient temple, but Luke had seen the shattered remnants of Alderaan and knew that for those in the incredible battle station that the entire moon would present simply another abstract problem in mass-energy conversion"(ANH novel, 178). Of course, this could mean many things . . . fire is mass-energy conversion . . . but it may imply that the mass of the planet contributes energy toward its own destruction:

The third -- and most important -- problem comes from the explosions themselves. When the superlaser fired at Alderaan, it caused an explosion which, in addition to what would be expected, also formed a strange ring effect, moving away from the planet at about a tenth of the speed of light! Also peculiar is the fact that the planet explosion occurred in two stages, the second explosion greater than the first, and also causing a second, faster 'fire ring' effect which *overtakes* the first, with a speed in excess of one-third lightspeed, roughly four times faster than the first ring! (Curtis Saxton, astrophysicist and author of the Episode II Incredible Cross Sections, estimates a speed far higher, approximately .91c, and possibly above lightspeed.)

Ring One appears before the superlaser is done striking

Ring Two has appeared, and is catching up with Ring One

There is nothing in what we know of physics to explain where this ring effect could have come from, and it is only seen again when the Death Stars themselves are exploding. Interestingly, both Death Stars exploded while their superlasers were powered up and ready to fire, suggesting that the ring effect has something to do with the superlaser, specifically, and at high power.

What in the world could cause this secondary explosion, mixed with the ring effect? No one really knows. One thing is clear . . . there is no way you can simply direct a laser beam of energy or a particle beam of matter into something and have it do that, so the superlaser is not a normal directed-energy or particle beam weapon.

The most obvious theory is that the superlaser weapon used some sort of peculiar physics effect, unknown to our science, that caused the planet's destruction. Maybe it was an exotic energy or exotic particle beam, maybe it was some sort of antimatter device, or maybe it used an effect we can't even begin to guess at. Either way, the Death Star didn't simply input energy directly via laser, as is claimed. It also follows from this that the physics effect was used to reduce the power requirements on the Death Star. It would not make sense for it to be *more* energy-intensive than a laser, because then you would simply build a regular laser to perform the same task. When you also take into account the fact that the Death Star reactor could not *possibly* power a directed energy device of 1e38 joules, the case is closed.

So, the next time someone tells you that the Death Star has the firepower to destroy a planet, and then starts rattling off firepower estimates in the gazillions of joules:

*Remember the Rings and Reactor*



Update: Hmm . . . "seismic charge" from AoTC . . . hmmm . . .

Or, better yet, how about a second look altogether?


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