After Hours

Geek Trivia: Stunt double to the stars

What celestial object in our solar system bears a strange resemblance to <i>Star Wars</i>' Death Star?

What's more than 100 kilometers across; home to more than 1 million military officers, crew, and support personnel; berths more than 7,000 attack craft; and has been the recipient of such dubious descriptions as "a technological terror" and "the ultimate power in the universe." If you said the Death Star from Star Wars... well, you should probably get out more.

But you're also right: Those quotes came from Darth Vader and Admiral Motti, respectively. (The fact that this Trivia Geek knew both the quotes and the quoted characters offhand means I should definitely get out more.)

Getting any more specific about the Death Star's capabilities, components, or dimensions is dicey, because those numbers vary significantly throughout official Star Wars literature. (Deciding precisely what qualifies as Star Wars canon is literally a full-time job — George Lucas pays people to keep track of it all.)

The discrepancies probably come from the volume of literature involving the Death Star because, hey, the Death Star is one of the most intriguing, impossible, and downright cool elements of the Star Wars mythos. As such, it shows up in a lot of Star Wars books, comics, and video games — and in places you might not expect. For example, many irreverently referred to the old AT&T sphere logo as the Death Star, at least before SBC rebranded it in 2005 to adopt a more three-dimensional icon.

Then there's the famous scene in the cult-hit indie film Clerks that discussed the moral consequences of destroying the still-under-construction second Death Star in Return of the Jedi, presumably while innocent civilian contractors were still aboard. The sketch proved so famous that George Lucas addressed it directly in the audio commentaries found on DVD versions of Attack of the Clones, assuring viewers that only nefarious Geonosian constructors died on the second Death Star.

Even serious scientists are far from immune to the lure of Death Star name-dropping. When the notion of a companion star to our own sun made scientific headlines in 1984, scientists informally dubbed the hypothetical object the death star. The still unproven and undiscovered brown dwarf has since received the more formal name of Nemesis, leaving open the notion of labeling some other local celestial object a death star — and we may have just the candidate.

One particular empirically observed and directly photographed celestial object in our own solar system bears a striking visual resemblance to the Death Star — perhaps giving it the best claim to the nickname.


What celestial object in our own solar system bears a striking resemblance to the Death Star?

"That's no moon, it's a space station... no, wait, it actually is a moon." You can almost hear Obi-Wan Kenobi speaking this line on first sight of the Saturnian moon Mimas.

While Mimas isn't a particularly remarkable space rock when compared to, say, the Saturnian moon Titan, it does have at least one highly photogenic feature: Its 130-kilometer-wide Herschel crater dominates the moon's surface — and looks surprisingly similar to the Death Star's superlaser dish. The Herschel crater — named for astronomer William Herschel, who discovered the moon in 1789 — is almost one-third the diameter of the moon itself, making it the most visible feature on the surface of Mimas — and just like the laser dish on the Death Star.

While Herschel found the moon in 1789, no seriously detailed photographs of Mimas appeared until 1980 and '81, when Voyagers 1 and 2 made respective flybys of Saturn and sent back images of many of the gas giant's satellites. The Empire Strikes Back was in theaters at roughly the same time, Star Wars was on everyone's mind, and the images of Mimas and its giant crater soon gave way to fleeting comparisons to the Death Star.

These same comparisons would reappear in 2005, when the Cassini probe made another pass by Saturn and grabbed still better pictures of Mimas, resurrecting the Death Star connection. How long that connection remains intact is hard to say.

Mimas is more ice than rock, effectively a dirty snowball trapped in Saturn's orbit. This makes it more structurally fragile than an old-fashioned nickel-iron asteroid or moon.

On a related note, Mimas is severely oblique, meaning Saturn's tidal gravitational forces have caused it to bulge along one axis — so much so that this distortion is visible in most photos. The asteroid impact that created the Herschel crater stopped just short of shearing the moon in two, which means similar future impacts — always a possibility — could send up the small Saturnian moon in a blaze of glory similar to, well, the Death Star. That's not just science vs. science-fictional irony — it's astronomically apropos Geek Trivia.

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The Trivia Geek's blog has been reborn as the Geekend, an online archive of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant — unless you're a hardcore geek with a penchant for science fiction, technology, and snark. Get a daily dose of subcultural illumination by joining the seven-day Geekend.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the April 11 edition of Geek Trivia, "A tax to grind." TechRepublic member brucevanvalkenburgh called attention to my miniscule knowledge of American corporate tax law when I suggested all U.S. federal returns were due on or about April 15 each year.

"While I enjoyed your seasonal piece on taxation, there is one slight modification that I'd suggest. Corporate tax returns, for entities with fiscal years ending December 31, are due March 15 — not April 15. (Actually, at one time, individual returns were also due March 15.) So [a] six-month extension makes it due September 15."

Thanks for the fiduciary correction, and keep those quibbles coming!

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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