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The Death Star is the ultimate weapon of the Star Wars universe, playing a major role in two of the films. It is an armoured battlestation with enough power to destroy an entire planet, taking the shape of a large grey metal globe 150km in diameter. An equatorial band divides the Death Star in half, and on its upper surface is a small bowl, like a particularly neat crater. From points around this crater, eight green laser beams are fired, uniting in the centre to form an ultimate turbolaser beam of death that can perform the coup de grace to any nearby planetoid. The Death Star also contains many hangars, prison cells, trash compactors and more bottomless pits that you can shake a gaffi stick1 at.
The Death Stars were built by the evil2 Galactic Empire as the ultimate weapon of terror, a means of keeping rebellious star systems in line. In both cases, however, the Death Stars were destroyed by a plucky, heroic, yet seriously outnumbered band of freedom fighters. Lucky that.
The First Death Star
Although the plans for it are glimpsed in Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and we see it starting to be built at the end of Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, (2005) the first time we see a Death Star in full operation is in the earliest Star Wars film, Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)3.
In this film the Death Star destroys its first and only planet — the peaceful Alderaan, the home of the lovely Princess Leia. It then moves in4 to destroy the moon Yavin Four, the current base of the Rebel Alliance. However, the rebels have analysed stolen Death Star plans and found a crucial weakness. Small, nippy one-man fighters can outmanoeuvre the lumbering defences of the Death Star, allowing them to speed down a length of trench5 and fire a proton torpedo down a thermal exhaust port right into the Death Star's main reactor6. This works, of course, but only at the very last second. The Death Star blows into tiny bits, whilst Yavin Four and the Rebel Alliance are saved!
The Second Death Star
After the first Death Star met with such a spectacular end, the Emperor hit on a cunning new plan — build a new one, but this time without the one crucial weakness that made the last one explode into a million pieces. This is ready by the time of Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983).
The second Death Star is only half finished, and looks like a greying old apple with a few bites taken out of it. While it's still being built, it's vulnerable to attack — or so the Rebel Alliance thinks. When their fleet swoops in, they discover to their horror that the Death Star is fully operational. And it destroys... one small spaceship7.
However disastrous this looks at first, the Death Star's shields are soon down, allowing a number of small spacecraft to fly directly through the half-built infrastructure and into the core of the Death Star. Where, of course, they blow up the main reactor and narrowly escape the resultant explosion.
The Expanded Universe
If anyone has a mind for any further reading, the whole history of the Death Star is written down in a licensed spin-off novel called Death Star, by Mark Reaves and Steve Perry.
A stripped-down version called the Tarkin8 makes an appearance in two of Marvel comics 'Star Wars' strips, set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
A Death Star prototype makes an appearance in Kevin J Anderson's Jedi Search trilogy, set after Return of the Jedi. Like most prototypes, it's a bit rubbish — it has a weak superlaser that takes hours to recharge, and it can't fire with any degree of accuracy.
In the book Darksaber, also by Kevin J Anderson, the Hutts, a bunch of slug-like gangsters, fund the original designer of the Death Star to build them a budget version called Darksaber — a sleek, cylindrical superweapon without all the bottomless shafts and trash compactors that made the original so bulky. In a rather disappointing ending, the Darksaber simply fails to work when turned on, and runs straight into the asteroid it was supposed to be blowing up.