Power Density Ad Absurdum, or Ignorance is Bliss

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Hey all, I’m Dru.  I’m a father, an engineer, and an all-around nerd.  I play role playing games on computers and around tables and enjoy reading and writing good and terrible sci-fi, respectively.  Among the things that may be relevant to know about me is that I tend think way too much about a lot of things.  So, naturally, I’ve applied principles from rocket science, engineering, and economics to the implications of starship design and power generation in Star Wars.

In general, most of the numbers that I present here are induced from data presented by Brian Young in his Turbolaser Commentaries.  I’ve assumed the Star Destroyer (and similarly classed ships) to be a baseline for median power generation technology, as they are a mass-produced technology and the books and movies present examples both more and less powerful with consistency.  Another point of clarification: the numbers I present are “big order of magnitude” numbers.  Densities are calculated based on order of magnitude power and order of magnitude volumes, which in turn are calculated from order of magnitude data or length, etc.

A Star Destroyer maintains a power density on the order of petawatts per cubic meter.  For comparison: Star Trek: The Next Generation presents the Enterprise-D around gigawatts per cubic meter, modern tanks and sports cars generate a few kilowatts per cubic meter, and the average human body generates about 27 watts per cubic meter.  The power generation of smaller ships is generally equivalent, and the Death Star’s deviation is within the margin of error, so petawatts per cubic meter for internal power generation is probably a reasonable assumption for military-grade technology through The Galaxy. Consumer level power density typically lags by, at most, three orders of magnitude.

What does that mean?  That means if you had a two-slice toaster (about 0.01 m³), it could easily contain a generator that would produce more power than the concurrent power generation of present-day Earth (about 15 terawatts)[1] and still have room for bread.  A vehicle about the size of a Chevrolet Corvette could produce power on the order of the total solar radiation received by the Earth (hundreds of petawatts).  If the useful volume of Earth comprised the entire surface of the planet, up to 829 meters (the height of the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world), the average power generation could be on the order of 10³² watts, or about 1,000,000 times the total output of the Sun[2].

“The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of our generators.”

— Darth Kargin

This begs the question: why don’t we see evidence of this scale of tech anywhere else in Star Wars?

With power generation on this scale, typical societal needs become trivial.  Food for trillions could be grown in massive orbital farms.  Water could be freely manufactured from hydrogen and oxygen gasses which could be cheaply farmed the atmospheres of stars and gas giants.  Typical requirements for life like warmth and shelter can be completely decoupled from stars and planets, because even at 99.9% efficiency, generators on this scale would produce enough waste heat to provide comfort for an entire civilization.  On-planet transit could be replaced by orbital insertions or underground vacuum-sealed rail lines which could provide movement to any point on a planet’s surface in a matter of seconds.  Raw building materials would become trivially inexpensive, because entire worlds could be consumed for their resources without hesitation.  Mobile installations on the scale of the Death Star could be commonplace, and would probably be cheaper to maintain than planetary colonies. Shielding technology versus weaponry on the scale presented in Star Wars would trivialize transit around and within the most massive stars, turning suns into the transit equivalent of a fog bank.

So why do we see poor moisture farmers scraping the desert air for droplets of water?  Why do populations consent to live in slavery? Why do we continue to see sub-sonic flight as the norm for intra-planetary transit?  Why is the Death Star considered an “ultimate weapon”?

We’ve come up with a couple of basic theories which help to explain this discrepancy.  Perhaps all of the galactic governments (the Republic(s), the Galactic Empire, and the various smaller powers) are intentionally oppressing their constituents by artificially inflating the prices of high-power tech in order to keep populations down and insurgencies weak.  More intriguingly, perhaps all of the tech in Star Wars is essentially “precursor tech”, which the modern societies (4000 BBY – 100 ABY or so) are generally incapable of reproducing (probably on the manufacturing side).

For the former theory, we see examples of extreme poverty and de facto anarchy on worlds like Tatooine, where even business owners live in slums and work in junk heaps, with the whole planet dependent upon planet-side moisture farms for basic life needs. Even on Coruscant — the Jewel of the Galaxy, the seat of the Republic(s) and the Empire, and a planet-wide city of affluence — poverty is commonplace and even the rich are not seen to possess any semblance of the technology implied by their power generation technology. Why does the professional demographic of Coruscant drive to work in a flying car, through the atmosphere, and at sub-sonic velocities to boot?

We also see the “average public” (Han Solo and Luke Skywalker) genuinely surprised to see a space station as large as the Death Star, implying that such construction is uncommon, when access to the requisite materials should be easy and such construction should be almost certainly less expensive than the terraforming or radiation shielding used to provide suitable habitats on other planets. In a society where power plants more potent than stars are well within reach (they built the second Death Star, with an even more powerful generator, in just four years after the destruction of the first!), traditional notions of reliance on insolation and planetary foundations go by the wayside, yet we see society firmly tethered to these.

Given the facility to solve all of these basic societal ills and house its constituency in comfort, all of the governments presented must be intentionally withholding both aid and information from their citizenry. Perhaps with a population reaching in the hundreds of quadrillions, the fear of uprising is so ever-present that a heavy-handed suppression by oppression is taken as a necessary evil even by the most upright of executives.

In support of the second theory, many C-Canon[3] sources reference ancient empires like the Rakata, the Columi, or the Celestials, whose technology is strikingly similar (though often considerably more advanced). Archaeological finds from these ancient empires include gravitic tools capable of reorienting celestial bodies across hundreds of parsecs[4] and factories that could draw raw materials directly from stars to manufacturer entire starships in minutes[5]. These artifacts should be everyday common facilities, and are well within the engineering implications of the indicated power production.

Perhaps all of the “modern” manufacturing tech is remnant technology from these ancient civilizations. This could help to explain the apparent lack of scientific progress over the millenia presented in the various books, movies, and games: the technology to build factory tools necessary for creating starships and (perhaps most importantly) power generation technology is lost, and society is forced to get by on salvaged factories built from the remains of long-dead civilizations of previous eras. It could even explain why technology for biological necessities appears so far behind: those ancient civilizations required a different sort of sustenance, so their technology is useless.

Whatever the reason, what seems clear is that the civilization presented in Star Wars is not nearly living up to the potential of its power generation. The Republic(s) and the Galactic Empire should possess enough generators to shine a light in the universe brighter than their entire galaxy, end hunger and disease, and bring all but limitless prosperity to their denizens, but instead we a society typified by slum living, slavery, and disgrace.


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