ByTom Bacon, writer at
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Tom Bacon

The blockbuster hit Rogue One has taken the box office by storm, and proved that Star Wars spinoffs can be just as successful as the main Saga movies. For Star Wars fans, though, the real excitement of Rogue One is that it solved the greatest mystery of the Star Wars franchise: why the Death Star had a critical weakness. In Rogue One, we learned that scientist Galen Erso — played by Mads Mikkelsen — deliberately designed an unstable reactor, and even set up the exhaust port as a way to get a missile in to the reactor. But how did he manage to fool the Empire into setting this up?

The answers are found in the Rogue One novelization, written by Alexander Freed. It's a tremendous book, and it includes a number of intriguing supplementals, in the form of Imperial and Rebel correspondence. These reveal just how Galen Erso manipulated events!

Tarkin's Mistake

The first hint is in an edict from Moff Tarkin. Frustrated at the delays to the Death Star project, he saw fit to remind Orson Krennic and his team of the Empire's requirements. They were very specific:

  • While Tarkin understood the benefits of early innovation, he warned that the Death Star was "not a testbed for new technologies... If we must add a hundred reliable, proven reactors instead of developing a single new one, so be it."
  • The Death Star must be built for use, specifically with the possibility of firing multiple shots at speed. Tarkin envisioned using a sequence of smaller shots to destroy capital ships (a strategy the Empire used with the Second Death Star over Endor).

The need for repeated shots was the critical error; the reactor would need serious modifications to enable this. What's more, Erso knew that Krennic would never sign off on "a hundred reliable, proven reactors" — the installation would delay the Death Star project significantly. No, this would be Erso's chance to manipulate the reactor and create a weakness.

A Ruthlessly Intelligent Strategy

The Death Star in 'Rogue One'. [Credit: Lucasfilm]
The Death Star in 'Rogue One'. [Credit: Lucasfilm]

The Death Star project teams were heavily compartmentalized, and Erso was able to manipulate matters so that the reactor was dangerously unstable. The reactor's shielding reflected too many radioactive particles back into the reactor, "overcooking" it. Naturally, this was spotted, and Erso suggested three solutions:

  • Firstly, installation of a massive particle funnel and recycler. This would require significant structural changes to a part of the station that had been believed to be finished, and that had even been presented to Tarkin as completed.
  • Secondly, initiating research on reactor technology to reduce waste materials. This was the idea Erso himself pushed for, knowing that Krennic would never agree to it — with no way of predicting when or how further breakthroughs would happen, Krennic couldn't afford more indefinite delays.
  • Finally, Erso suggested constructing manual venting shafts — and, of course, thermal exhaust ports. The reactor would stay unstable, but the Death Star would continue to function. This was the approach Krennic signed off on.
Krennic was fooled in 'Rogue One'. [Credit: Lucasfilm]
Krennic was fooled in 'Rogue One'. [Credit: Lucasfilm]

Here's the catch, though; the vents and exhaust ports weren't enough. Radiation would still flood many sections of the Death Star when the superweapon was fired, but — critically — this wouldn't affect the command sectors or officer quarters. Realizing that further work would delay the project still further, Imperial bureaucrats signed off on these adjustments. In so doing, they prevented further investigation into the reactor problems, which were reported as resolved. Erso had gotten away with leaving the reactor dangerously unstable!

The Single Problem...

The Death Star battle in 'A New Hope'. [Credit: Lucasfilm]
The Death Star battle in 'A New Hope'. [Credit: Lucasfilm]

Galen Erso manipulated the Empire's bureaucracy to his own ends, ensuring that the reactor remained unstable — and manipulating events so as to ensure exhaust ports were installed. Fire a missile down one of the exhaust ports, and you hit the reactor. Hit the unstable reactor, and you detonate it, destroying the Death Star.

The one thing Galen couldn't control, though, was the installation of defensive systems across the surface of the Death Star. By ensuring the Empire didn't realize how unstable the Death Star was, though, he ensured they wouldn't prioritize defences around the exhaust ports. This was where Erso's strategy was something of a gamble; had defences around the crucial exhaust port been a little better, Luke Skywalker's X-wing would have been shot out of the sky. In this, though, he was lucky.

See also:

The Rogue One novelization is a fantastic book, adding an extra layer of depth to the blockbuster hit. In this case, it fleshes out one of the greatest mysteries of the Saga — and explains just how Galen Erso gave the Death Star such a critical weakness!


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(Poll Image Credit: Lucasfilm)


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