Science Writer Claims the Death Star Couldn't Destroy Alderaan with a Laser

Thursday, 19 March 2015 - 2:59PM
Thursday, 19 March 2015 - 2:59PM
Could the Death Star really destroy an entire planet in only a few seconds with a laser beam, even if it does wear the moniker of "superlaser"? Universe Today's Frasier Cain is here to answer this question, and it likely won't make Star Wars fans very happy:

In the above video, Cain starts off by snarkily explaining the scene in which Alderaan is destroyed by the Death Star in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope:

"You've watched Star Wars right? Is that still a thing? With the Starring and the Warring? Anyway, there's this classic scene where the 'Death Star' sidles up to Alderaan, and it is all like 'Hey Planetoid, you lookin' fine tonight' and then it fires up the superlaser and destroys the entire orb in a single blast. 'BOOM'... The planet then detonates and chunks fly off in every direction just like the pie-eating contest in 'Stand By Me.'"

He concedes that essentially anything can happen within a futuristic universe, in which humans could have learned to manipulate the laws of physics in ways that we haven't imagined yet. But for the sake of argument, he explores whether it's "realistic" that the Death Star exploded Alderaan by focusing its "superlaser" on it for a few short seconds.

In broad terms, this could happen; if a concentrated beam of energy was directed towards the center of the planet, it would eventually become highly destabilized and explode. The question is whether the Death Star could plausibly harness enough energy to blow up Alderaan in such a short period of time. He calculates that a laser beam would require an enormous amount of energy- 2 x 10^36 joules per second- in order to explode a whole planet. As a comparison, the Sun, which outputs 3 x 10^26 joules per second, would take a week to blow up Earth. (I can't personally find the canonical size of Alderaan, but Earth is often used as a proxy for Alderaan in Star Wars-related calculations.) 

According to the book Death Star, the weapon runs on a hyperreactor, a fictional piece of technology that could serve as a catch-all explanation and allow the Death Star to output the energy of multiple stars. But Cain dismisses this as a ludicrous, mostly because the Death Star is barely the size of our Moon, and nothing in the canon explains the hyperreactor's "superluminal boost" in a satisfactory manner. 

So we're left with an antimatter bomb. According to Cain, the destruction of Alderaan makes much more sense if the superlaser is not a laser beam at all, but actually just a targeting laser that allowed the Death Star to destroy Alderaan with a bomb made of antimatter, which may only need to be 3 km in diameter. This might make more sense, but it would leave fanboys extremely unhappy.

"A space station capable of deploying a week's worth of solar energy in a single second might be a stretch. And maybe, George, if you'd just done a little back of the napkin math, we wouldn't be talking about this right now. Also, maybe no Ewoks. I'm just saying."
Science of Sci-Fi

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