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The Physics of Starkiller Base

WARNING: Mild spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens below, so proceed at your own risk. There will be physics, math, and some plot points…No seriously, turn back now if you don’t want any spoilers but love you some science.

Starkiller Base, the headquarters of the First Order constructed after the destruction of the second Death Star above Endor, is more than twice the size of previous battle stations, and significantly more powerful. “Death Star III” doesn’t begin to describe it. It demonstrates its might early on in The Force Awakens, by obliterating five planets at once. All that power has to come from somewhere – Starkiller Base gets its ammo from the biggest nuclear reactors in the galaxy. But how much energy does it take to make this base fully operational?

The base is called “Starkiller” ostensibly because it must drain stars to charge its big gun. When it does, it looks like what happens when a star gets too close to a black hole – layers of heat and hydrogen spiral into the gravitational oblivion like water down a drain. Perhaps the First Order has figured out a way to increase the gravity of the planet the base was built inside, creating a similar hunger for nearby stars. If that were the case, and the base could somehow fuse that fuel itself, Starkiller Base could harness a star’s massive energy output for evil. That’s just a guess, but at least it’s one we can put numbers to.

A star can burn for billions of years because of nuclear fusion. Fusion occurs when a combination of extreme pressure and temperature forces atoms together despite their repulsion. The result is a new atom – most stars begin their lives fusing hydrogen into helium – and a huge release of energy. Our Sun, for example, releases enough energy to power the entire human population 700,000 times over every second. Here on Earth we’ve mastered nuclear fission, or the splitting of atoms to release energy, in bombs and power plants, but fusion still eludes us.

In The Force Awakens, it looks like Starkiller Base drains a whole star to charge its weapon, so what kind of energy would that be? Let’s assume that the base is sucking all of the usable fuel from a nearby star, fusing it in the planet’s core (somehow), and then redirecting the energy release. That’s the scenario I posed to Dr. Kenneth G. Carpenter, NASA astrophysicist and currently the Operations Project Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope. If the star drained in The Force Awakens is of a similar size to our sun, he told me in an e-mail, the weapon could easily destroy five planets.

On March 28, 2011, NASA’s Swift detected intense X-ray flares thought to be caused by a black hole devouring a star.

As Dr. Carpenter explained to me, our sun is 73 percent hydrogen. And when that hydrogen fuses, 99.3 percent of it becomes helium. The rest is converted into raw energy according to Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2. That’s a small percentage, but more than enough. “If all the hydrogen in the Sun were to be fused into helium,” Carpenter told me, “The energy equivalent of this [would be] 8.7 x 10^44 Joules.”

870 million trillion trillion trillion Joules is a gargantuan amount of energy, more than a few supernovas’ worth. But is that enough to destroy a planet, let alone five? The amount of energy required to destroy a planet has already been answered – nerds wanted to know what it would take to destroy Alderaan after the first Star Wars film came out. That figure, based on how much gravitational glue a planet takes to keep together, is around 2 x 10^32 Joules.

Dividing the two values, if Starkiller Base is draining all of a star’s fuel and fusing it for nefarious purposes, the new weapon could handily destroy five Alderaan-sized planets. It could take out four trillion planets at once — every planet in the galaxy. The immensity of this value leaves a lot of wiggle room too. The planets taken out in The Force Awakens could be much larger than the Earth and still meet an explosive fate.

And even if Starkiller Base is siphoning just the thermal energy of a nearby star, Carpenter explained, there is more than enough energy there to enact the kind of annihilation we see on screen.

Starkiller Base, with its stellar fuel source, is nothing less than the most powerful weapon the Star Wars franchise has ever seen. Too bad the First Order engineers didn’t consider that a weakness thousands of times larger than a womp rat would be a problem.

IMAGE: Starkiller Base by Julian-Faylona//deviantART

Kyle Hill is the Science Editor at Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

Want more Star Wars science? Here’s why Han Solo may be a time traveler:

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