The Death Star.  Image Credit: Wookieepedia / Lucasfilm
The Death Star. Image Credit: Wookieepedia / Lucasfilm

Physics, Planet News

Could a ‘Death Star’ Really Destroy a Planet?

18 Jan , 2012 by

[/caption]Countless Sci-Fi fans vividly remember the famous scene in Star Wars in which the Death Star obliterates the planet Alderaan.

Mirroring many late night caffeine-fueled arguments among Sci-Fi fans, a University of Leicester researcher asks the question:

Could a small moon-sized battle station generate enough energy to destroy an Earth-sized planet?

A paper by David Boulderston (University of Leicester) sets out to answer that very question. First, for the uninitiated, just what the heck is a Death Star?

According to Star Wars lore, the DS-1 Orbital Battle Station, or Death Star, is a moon-sized battle station designed to spread fear throughout the galaxy. The image above shows the Death Star as it appeared in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977). The Death Star’s main weapon is depicted as a superlaser capable of destroying planets with a single blast.

Boulderston claims that it is possible to estimate how much energy the Death Star would need in order to destroy a planet with its superlaser. There are a number of assumptions made, however, in order to come up with the energy requirement.

For starters, Boulderston assumed that Alderaan did not have any sort of planetary “deflector” shield. A second assumption is that the planet is a solid body of uniform density – essentially ignoring the complex interior of planets, due to lack of information on Alderaan itself. Using the idealized sphere model based on Earth’s mass and diameter, it was possible to determine the gravitational binding energy of Alderaan, using a simple equation of:

U= 3GMp2
——
5Rp

Where G is the Gravitational Constant (6.673×10-11), Mp is planet mass, and Rp is the planet’s radius. Using Earth’s mass and radius, the required energy comes out to 2.25 x 1032 Joules. Using Jupiter’s data, the energy required goes up to 2 x 1036 Joules.

Boulderston asserts that (according to Star Wars lore) the Death Star is powered by a ‘hypermatter’ reactor, possessing the energy output of several main-sequence stars. Given that the power output of our Sun is about 3 x 1026 Joules per second, it’s a reasonable assumption the Death Star’s reactor could power the superlaser.

Despite using a simplified model of a planet, Boulderstone states the simplified model is reasonable to use since the Death Star’s main power reactor has the energy output equal to several main-sequence stars. Even if Earth’s exact composition were used in the equation above, the required energy to destroy a planet would only be affected by a few orders of magnitude – well within the Death Star’s power budget.

Boulderstone reiterated that the energy required to destroy a Jupiter-sized planet would put considerable strain on the Death Star. To destroy a planet like Jupiter, all power from essential systems and life support (no re-routing from the auxiliary EPS conduits – that’s a Star Trek hack!) would be required, which is not necessarily possible.

Boulderstone’s conclusion is that the Death Star could indeed destroy Earth-like planets, given its main power source. While the Death Star could destroy an Earth-sized planet, a Jupiter-sized planet would be a tough challenge, and the Galactic Empire would need to resort to using a Suncrusher to destroy stars.

If you’d like to read Boulderstone’s paper, you can access it at: https://physics.le.ac.uk/journals/index.php/pst/article/view/328/195

,

By  -      
In addition to being a published astronomer specializing in variable stars, Ray Sanders has blogged for Universe Today, and The Planetary Society blog, among others.



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Anonymous
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Anonymous
January 18, 2012 11:58 PM

We never see it in the movies but the Death Star must travel faster than light. We see it first blow up Alderaan and then it heads on over to Yavin to blow up its moon.

If they have the power to move the Death Star much faster than light (er… jump to hyperspace) one would think they have the energy to blow up a Jupiter sized planet.

Torbjorn Larsson OM
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Torbjorn Larsson OM
January 19, 2012 12:10 AM

You got there before me! [/does a victory dance anyway, remembered to update the thread before posting for once]

Torbjorn Larsson OM
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Torbjorn Larsson OM
January 19, 2012 12:09 AM

Could a ‘Death Star’ Really Destroy a Planet?

Certainly. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…. Since we don’t see the energy output equal to several main-sequence stars liberated from an Aldebaran sized source.

Btw, me thinks Boulderston needs to take a superlaser technology as a given as well. Cramming that much energy into coherent radiation would strain even “hypermatter”.

Daniel Evans
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Daniel Evans
January 19, 2012 12:15 AM

Assuming a fairly liberal value of “several” to be 100, that’s still something like 2 hours of beaming to blow up Alderaan – assuming no energy loss over that time! And never mind Jupiter – that’s years…

David Douthett
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January 19, 2012 4:24 AM

Or you could store energy from the station core for few hours and let it all out at once, right?

Ray Sanders
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January 19, 2012 3:04 PM

According to Star Wars lore, the Death Star could only fire a planet destroying beam once per day. If you remember in “Return of the Jedi”, the second Death Star was able to fire ship destroying blasts pretty rapidly.

DrFlimmer
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DrFlimmer
January 19, 2012 8:07 PM

Well, but ships don’t need as much energy to destroy them as a plant, I think. I would say, they just needn’t to lead the batteries for as long. wink

Daniel Evans
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Daniel Evans
January 23, 2012 5:27 PM

You must have some pretty big trees if your plants are harder to destroy than ships wink

I now have the mental image of the Death Star being a Lead-Acid battery in space…

Denver
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Denver
January 19, 2012 1:30 AM

“and the Galactic Empire would need to resort to using a Suncrusher to destroy stars”

Or Samantha Carter.
Indeed.

Ray Sanders
Guest
January 19, 2012 3:02 PM

Well, Rodney McKay can take out 5/6 of a star system.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
January 19, 2012 7:21 PM

I think you forget the entire other universe he almost destroyed. wink

Chris Ho-Stuart
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Chris Ho-Stuart
January 19, 2012 1:54 AM

You MUST read this classic article by Sam Hughes: How to destroy the Earth; which explains in more informal language the difficulty of this task. Classic quote:

“The Earth is built to last. It is a 4,550,000,000-year-old, 5,973,600,000,000,000,000,000-tonne ball of iron. It has taken more devastating asteroid hits in its lifetime than you’ve had hot dinners, and lo, it still orbits merrily. So my first piece of advice to you, dear would-be Earth-destroyer, is: do NOT think this will be easy.”

K
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K
January 19, 2012 2:21 AM

cool

Anonymous
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Anonymous
January 19, 2012 4:31 AM

They could be changing the Gravitational Constant G Constant (6.673×10^-11&gtwink using the force by the “dark side.” After all Jedi can raise heavy objects and toss them about as if they were nothing.
Even the beam might have a multi-dimensional manifestation of the hyperspace somehow channelling its energies into real space.
A third option is an exploding space bomb or “quantum bomb”, where somehow twisted space is unravelled into the universe greatly expanding near the planet causing it to be torn apart.
Fourth, an artificial supernova by damaging the interactions in atoms of either the strong or the weak force
Yet, using normal physics, I agree, it does not seem possible.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
January 19, 2012 7:26 PM

They could even fall back to their original, pre-Death Star, methods: send a squadron of Victory-class Star Destroyers (the one you see trying to stop the Millennium Falcon from leaving Tatooine) to glass the surface of the planet.

Ray Fowler
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Ray Fowler
January 19, 2012 5:12 AM

The only thing scientific in this article is the formula for gravitational binding energy. Everything else is just high fantasy. Shouldn’t this be on the History channel instead?

Ray Sanders
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January 19, 2012 3:05 PM

I suppose “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away” would constitute as “Ancient Aliens”

Thomas Houck
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January 19, 2012 5:30 PM

Or perhaps SyFy?

India web hosting
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January 19, 2012 9:29 AM

I absolutely enjoyed reading and hope you keep updating it frequently! I absolutely liked the abstraction you accept aloft here. It is actual accessible and advantageous one.

Steve Nerlich
Member
January 19, 2012 11:11 AM

I never quite got how point source outputs from the edges of the parabolic dish somehow became linearly inverted towards the dish’s focal point – and then somehow all that energy was concentrated into a straight beam. I mean, huh?

If they had put the transmitter at the dish’s focal point to create an attentuating wave of energy directed at the dish’s surface so that the energy was reflected and concentrated into a collimated beam – that would have been one kick-ass bit of science fiction.

Lawrence B. Crowell
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Lawrence B. Crowell
January 19, 2012 12:48 PM
Given that the gravitational binding energy of the Earth is 10^{32} joules and that the Death Star blasted Alderaan in about a second that much energy must be imparted to it. By E = mc^2 this means 10^{32}j/9×10^{16}m^/s^2 ~ 10^{16}kg of mass would have to be converted into energy. This is about 10 trillion tons. If this mass is in ordinary matter form (not a quantum black hole etc) at 10g/cm^3 the volume of this mass would be 10^{18}cm^3 or 10^6cm in radius or 10^4m = 10km. That is a pretty hefty bit of matter to convert to energy that quickly and hurl at a planet. Of course it would require far less energy to drag a Ceres… Read more »
Dark Gnat
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Dark Gnat
January 19, 2012 2:07 PM

The biggest reason for using the Death Star to destroy a planet is that it would send a message to any other systems that would be thinking about joining the rebellion. Sure, there might be more efficient ways of doing it, but being able to say “obey or get Death Starred” is a powerful tool in oppression.

“Fear will keep them in line! Fear of this battle station.”

However, they were overconfident and did not think the Rebellion would have the balls to attack it directly.

Suggestion for a new article: Can a human survive carbonite freezing?

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
January 19, 2012 3:49 PM
Of course the whole Star Wars series is a classic mythic narrative. The characters Lucas scripted have that somewhat 2-d nature common of characters in mythology, whether that be Greek, Keltic or Norse mythology, the Mahabharata, the Bible and so forth. It is classic good vs evil narrative with characters put to various tests and with a mystical power (God, YHVH, The Force, Vishnu etc) operating behind it all. The “Lord of the Rings” is a similar mythic narrative, and to be honest I think the movies had a better development than Star Wars, in spite of a few deviations (fortunately rather few) from Tolkien’s novels. There are a host of things which are likely impossible or highly… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
January 20, 2012 9:41 PM

I have a question:

Let’s ignore the obvious solution (asteroid impact) here.

If I wanted to destroy Earth (given current or assumed technology available this century) what kind of power source would I use? How big would it need to be? What other major factors do we need to consider? For example, an equal reaction in the opposite direct such as powerful thrusters.

Could this be more easily achieved with some kind of kinetic projectile gun? I.e. enormous rail gun?

Thought experiments here but interested in getting your option on this.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
January 20, 2012 11:58 PM
There is no way we can destroy Earth. We certainly can’t blast the planet into asteroid bits. With the best of our nuclear weaponry or another century of polluting, mining, climate heating, devastating eco-systems and so forth we will not kill off life on Earth. We can do a lot of damage, and we may in the end be engineering the 6th mass extinction, but we can’t kill off life on this planet. In 25 million years life will be doing just fine. The Prophet George Carlin has this about right: By the time the idiot corporate CEOs, businessmen and their stooge politicians wake up to this problem it will probably be too late. Indeed I speculate that… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
January 21, 2012 5:49 PM

I know LC. I was asking this as a thought experiment. I was curious over how big such a structure/how resource intensive it would be. For thought experiment purposes only.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
January 22, 2012 1:25 AM
As I indicated above we would have to convert 10 trillion tons of matter to energy to do what the Death Star did to Alderaan. So we would have to conjure up that much antimatter. Given our accelerator technology has over the last 40 produced about a gram of anti-matter that would take a long time. To convert this amount of matter to energy by nuclear bomb it means the bomb core would have a mass of about 10^{19} tons, or about 10 times the mass of water in the oceans. There is nothing “in principle” which says we don’t have the means, but the scale of things is so utterly beyond anything we can practically grapple with.… Read more »
Ivan3man_At_Large
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Ivan3man_At_Large
January 22, 2012 3:14 AM

We might be able to scorch the Earth, […]. A space based alternative would be to put a huge Fresnel lens at the L1 point. This could be about 100km in radius area. Solar radiation could then be directed in some raster scanning process to burn everything.

In my cunning plan for World domination…
If aliens wanted to wipe out all life on Earth, the simplest method would be to place a ring of concave mirrors in polar orbit around the Earth, angled at 45° to the Sun, which would focus the Sun’s energy in a ‘ring of fire’ and eventually scorch the entire Earth’s surface, over a period of 12 hours, as it rotates on its axis.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
January 22, 2012 3:41 AM

A white persian cat. I believe this is a reference to a 007 movie, either Dr. No or Blowfat? It has been a long time since I have seen those. It has actually been a long time since I have seen any of the Star Wars movies.

LC

Ivan3man_At_Large
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Ivan3man_At_Large
January 22, 2012 3:58 AM

Actually, the name of the supervillian in the James Bond moveis is Blofeld.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
January 23, 2012 7:56 PM

Thanks for the info guys.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
January 23, 2012 8:20 PM

Thanks kill joy. Fortunately, Lucus didn’t take into consideration plausibility when he made the movies. Furthermore, if 1,000,000 is the total knowlwedge in the universe, we are probably at around 4 right now.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
January 19, 2012 12:49 PM

a deleted repeat

interI0per
Member
interI0per
January 19, 2012 2:38 PM

ha! anything with those capabilities would have no need to oppress anything at all.
it’s only enemies would be vastness and ignorance.

unless all it wanted was to sell popcorn.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
January 20, 2012 12:29 AM
“ha! anything with those capabilities would have no need to oppress anything at all.” I see no reason to make that assumption. I can imagine a learned person in ancient Greece or Rome saying the same thing after being told of 21st Century nuclear power, and yet here we are… Indeed, the essence of most SF is that new technologies don’t change human motivations very much, but may give them new (and even unexpected) ways to be expressed. And the real world tends to support that. (That, and the fact that all fiction, science or not, requires one or more people with one or more problems to solve, endure or overcome. We might want to *live* in a… Read more »
ROCA
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ROCA
January 19, 2012 5:24 PM

A death star is too much expensive to “kill a planet”. A relativistc bomb, instead, would be effective in destroying the civilization and the energy consumed far less…. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relativistic_kill_vehicle

meekGee
Member
meekGee
January 19, 2012 6:24 PM

Well, nobody said all of the planet-pieces achieved escape velocity. It could have been simple thermal shock.

On second thought though, the fragments of the (terrestrial-scale) planet seemed to have covered the diameter of the planet within a small fraction of a second. Definitely escaping…. Hell, those are relativistic speeds for the debris – I’m so glad none of them actually hit the death star. Well, not glad, conflicted.

Ken
Guest
January 19, 2012 10:34 PM

Well ok, this may be a bit pedantic, but their assumptions are wrong and in this case it would matter.

Setting aside absurdity of a directed energy weapon having enough power to destroy a planet, there is the point that having a DEW powerful enough to destroy a planet of uniform density would not mean that it could destroy a real planet like the Earth because most of the mass of the Earth (5.5.g/cm^3 ) is in the core.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
January 20, 2012 12:44 AM

So how would the lethality of the Death Star compare to that of the Doomsday Machine?: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Doomsday_Machine_%28Star_Trek%29

More importantly, could a Death Star take out the DM, with its’ hull of “pure neutronium”. Inquiring geeks wanna know!

Ivan3man_At_Large
Member
Ivan3man_At_Large
January 21, 2012 12:29 AM

I think that The Doomsday Machine, using its “beam of pure positrons”, would have the Death Star for breakfast!

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
January 21, 2012 2:54 AM

We must not forget the Dr. Who episode, “The Pirate Planet,” written by Douglas Adams. Here a giant hollow shell materializes around a planet and consumes it in order to run a time dam which keeps the queen frozen in time and immortal.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pirate_Planet

LC

Anonymous
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Anonymous
January 22, 2012 12:00 AM

My only issue with this article is the assumption that it would strain the Death Star’s resources to destroy a planet the size of Jupiter. Is it assuming that the planet in question would be solid? After all, Jupiter is mostly gas, or is this also accounting for the core?

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