A Second Look At the Death Star's Destruction of Alderaan

(The old preliminary version of this page is still available here.)


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 assuming that the Death Star directly input all the required energy into the planet. By "directly", they mean as if by laser, particle beam, or other direct energy transfer (DET) method. This is an assumption only.

Next, they calculate the energy required using the gravitational binding energy of a planet like Earth. Sounds like a good idea. 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, with 1e38J the calculated (and often quoted) maximum.

And here our troubles began.

The following is from a message posted on alt.startrek.vs.starwars, and is largely unedited. I may soon construct a revised and expanded version, but this should be more than sufficient for now.

The screenshots used on this page were made via the vidcap of the Special Edition version, provided by Mike Wong.

Actually, if you watch that segment slowly in the Special Edition, the Death Star blast need only destroy part of the planet directly.

About five frames after the superlaser first makes contact with the planet, a firey explosion appears to cover most of the target hemisphere. The rest of the planet (observable, in part, on the leftmost side) is fine. By the next frame, the first ring has appeared all the way around the planet, even though that left side (with atmosphere, even) still seems to be stable. (That's the last frame of the superlaser.) Assuming anyone was still alive at this point on the other side of the planet, they must've wondered what the hell was going on.

The white flash of the superlaser strike.

The firey explosion begins, mostly near the beam

The rings and a band of brightness around the center of the beam appear. The band will encircle the globe.

The next frame shows the superlaser target point much darker, with a band of greater brightness around it that reminds me of the Genesis Effect. I'm not sure if the darkness at the target zone represents debris clouding our view, or if there's some sort of Independence Day thing going on. A couple of frames later, the band of brightness has expanded, as have the rings, and the dark patch where the superlaser hit is darker.

It is only when the leftmost section of the ring almost leaves the frame that the band of brightness seems to reach the leftmost horizon of the planet. As the frames pass, this explosion dissipates as the debris flies outward. Our view of whatever might remain of the planet is obscured by the mysterious ring and the expanding debris.

A few frames later, a peculiar secondary explosion begins, with a corresponding second ring appearing shortly.

Secondary Explosion
Superimposed image of the planet and the blast, 42 frames apart

Judging by the propagation speed of that weird band of brightness, the edges of the band may have met on the opposite side of the planet. This secondary explosion is apparently much larger than the first, though it doesn't appear as bright in the first moments (it may have on the opposite side of the planet). It appears to be centered somewhere behind the core of the planet. The second ring is also larger and much faster than the first. The secondary explosion also gives us our first observation of large debris material, appearing to come from the former location of the center of the planet, headed in the general direction the superlaser had come from.

This suggests that the superlaser only directly destroyed the part of the planet facing it in those first few milliseconds, since there would be no particular reason for a higher concentration of bulk material (from the core or otherwise) to head toward the original location of the beam. It would have to be either because that area of the planet no longer existed (providing no resistance), and/or because something (the secondary explosion, produced somehow by the bands) was giving it a good shove from behind. This also serves to explain why so much of the material of the secondary explosion seemed to fly away and behind the planet, while larger pieces flew forward.

The only remotely similar occurence I could think of as an analog was the Big Whack Theory of the moon's origin, involving a large body two or three times the size of Mars striking a newly formed Earth. Nova Online has a nice Quicktime simulation here which appears to be pretty close to the computer simulations I've seen. The problem is that the Big Whack Theory doesn't help us much. After all, Earth survived. But, the simulation does show the sort of planet-wide deformation that occurred.

The superlaser blast caused no such planetwide deformation whatsoever (though, to be fair, the impact event as shown in the Nova video is time-compressed. In reality, the impact and immediate after-effects occurred over a matter of hours).

Instead of deformation, the area directly targeted appeared to explode, causing a peculiar luminescent band to encircle the planet while, simultaneously, a mysterious ring appeared, departing the planet at about .3 lightspeed. At a time corresponding to the band coalescing on the opposite side of the planet, a second explosion occurred, sending out a corresponding second ring, departing the planet at about .9 lightspeed.

So, what does this mean? What is the "Genesis Effect" thing (or, more appropriately, the "Anti-Genesis Effect From Hell") happening with the bands? Well, it could be some sort of normal shockwave caused by the near-instantaneous destruction of a large section of the planet. However, this makes little sense, since the magnitude of the secondary explosion (and second ring) would seem to have been far greater than the magnitude of the first. For a normal shockwave to do what was done, it would have had to gather additional energy along the way somehow.

And what of the rings? Most people seem willing to ignore them, but that is a nonsense approach. You just don't get high-sublight rings flying out of something like that, no matter what just happened to it.

In search of the answer, I happened upon this quote, a description of how the Death Star does its work. "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, p. 178).

Mass-energy conversion can take many forms, of course, from combustion to fusion to matter/antimatter reactions. However, given the observed behavior of the superlaser, this quote would seem to imply that much of the energy of the Alderaan explosion came from Alderaan itself. The exact nature of this mass-energy conversion (or perhaps 'extraction') is a mystery, but it can be seen by way the "Genesis Effect" shockwave band appears to have caused the secondary and larger explosion, and may also serve as a sufficiently exotic explanation for the presence of the high-sublight rings.

Now, this does mean that I have independantly ended up in the same place as several others, insofar as I have postulated that Alderaan supplied part (or most) of the energy of her destruction. Wong would suggest that such an idea simply comes from shocked disbelief or Evil Trekkiedom, and he has attempted refutation of several similar ideas on the Myths page of StarDestroyer.Net. None of the methods he refutes are sufficient to explain the rings and band, nor does he attempt to do so. Furthermore, I have arrived at this only by watching the film frame-by-frame, and searching the canon for further details (I had not noticed the "Anti-Genesis Effect" of the bands until writing this). I'll agree with Wong on the refutation of other methods, and also add to the list of refutable ideas the notion that an antimatter beam could have done the deed... it could, possibly, but even antimatter would not have produced the observed effects.

Clearly, something more exotic is going on. Clearly, it has to do directly with the superlaser, since the only other explosions which have produced similar rings have been the destruction of Death Stars which have their superlasers charged.

Just to see where it leads us, let's assume that there is a chain reaction of some sort. Based on observations of the explosion resulting from the target area 'impact' of the superlaser, up until the bands and ring are well on their way, the exotic mechanism of the Death Star superlaser may have only taken over after a significant portion of the planet had been directly destroyed. I would estimate that only between 10 and 30 percent of the mass of the planet was destroyed directly in order to get the chain reaction underway.

On the other hand, if the superlaser mechanism did not require an energy release on the planet to take effect, then the entire planet would have been destroyed by that mechanism.

"I wonder why they weren't vaporized?"
- - - -McCoy, Star Trek VI

One question that this brings up is how some sort of mass-energy conversion mechanism of the sort I am hypothesizing could have avoided reducing the entire mass of the planet to energy. There are several potential solutions, ranging from simple inefficiency to the notion that only those materials near the surface contributed. In any case, it would be helpful to estimate the amount of material left over in the vicinity of the planet. However, this is extremely difficult, given the fact that we're only left to estimate based on a diffuse cloud with some bulk matter here and there, not to mention that some of the debris exits, stage left, and out of frame. Any attempt to perform an eyeball estimate will result in a huge margin of error, but I'll hazard a guess that between ten and fifty percent of the planet's mass is no longer present after the secondary explosion starts to die down.

The notion that the mass-energy conversion mechanism of the superlaser stripped the planet of mass is not new... that would be the case even in the event of a powerful laser beam. However, the way in which the Anti-Genesis Effect seemed to draw energy from the planet's surface (or layers closest to it . . . or it might even have been dealing with the mantle exclusively) has apparently not been observed before.

The only peril with what I shall refer to as the Anti-Genesis Effect hypothesis is that there is no known mechanism to explain it, and more direct references do not appear in the canon (besides Luke's quote) to my knowledge.

(On the other hand, the nomenclature alone makes it awfully nifty, perfectly juxtaposing the philosophies of the Federation and Empire. And, based on the end of Star Trek IV and the likely result of the Alderaan blast, the Genesis Planet broke up rather violently, whereas the Alderaan debris will likely re-coalesce.)

(Aside: And while we're on the subject of protomatter devices . . . hmm . . . Genesis Device, star reignition in "Second Sight"[DS9], and it was used by the Maquis to destroy a ship, the bomb being described as an "implosive protomatter device" ("The Maquis"[DS9]). It's been far too long since I saw "Second Sight" to recall what that device going off looked like, but the Genesis wave did put out a planet(oid) encircling band in the simulation, and also gave off a hellacious plume over the surface, though this certainly isn't a ring. There might just be something to the idea, though protomatter is quite the unknown, so I won't incorporate it as part of the official hypothesis.)

In any case, the Anti-Genesis Effect hypothesis serves to attempt to explain the effects observed by the superlaser strike on Alderaan, giving the idea greater weight than the directed energy transfer hypothesis, which left unknowns such as the rings and bands as ignored unknowns. It also does not ignore the fact that the superlaser simply is not a laser, which the other ideas would seem to imply (in part due to the ICS, plus the notion espoused by some non-canon works that the superlaser is a really big turbolaser, in principle).

Furthermore, it allows the Death Star to more easily meet the energy requirements of blowing up a planet, a feat which would not have been possible using fusion (the "artificial sun" reference in the ANH novel, plus the fusion reference in the Star Wars Technical Journal and Star Wars Encyclopedia), or any sort of fusion-like use of hyperon particles (aka 'hypermatter').

Indeed, the actual material necessary from Alderaan assuming 100% mass-energy conversion (matter-energy equivalence) would be on the order of 1.1e21 kilograms. That would produce the often-touted 1e38 joules thought necessary to destroy Alderaan. A planet like Earth weighs in at 5.97e24 kilograms, giving Earth over 5,000 times the necessary matter to perform the deed. Therefore, assuming that only 10 percent of Alderaan's matter was removed by the blast, the Anti-Genesis Effect did not need to be terribly efficient at all to produce the necessary explosion energy.


Upon watching the destruction of the Death Star II in orbit of Endor, I noticed something I had not seen before, but which fits beautifully in my hypothesis. The second Death Star's explosion is not centered on the reactor of the Death Star, which would be in the center of the beast, but is instead centered around the left side of the superlaser, at roughly the center of mass of the Death Star. This occurs only after an explosive flash from the superlaser, suggesting that the superlaser was at least involved in the explosion, and not merely destroyed by it. There would be no reason for the explosion to occur at the center of mass, unless the mass of the Death Star were contributing to the explosion.

This fits perfectly with my hypothesis, while giving the classical model more trouble.

Images of DS2 one frame before detonation and
at the start of its ring-formation superimposed.


Several objections have been made to the hypothesis, though none have stuck. See these for yourself here.

Back to ST-SW intro.