Guest Blog by Dr Steve Cross: The Science of Space

By Steve Cross

Do you know what everyone in space is scared of? It’s not lasers (we’ve got shields) or fire (we’ll just get a droid to put it out) or even fifth-dimensional beings (they can be defeated by being witty or saying their name backwards). No. It’s torpedoes. Well, in Star Wars and Star Trek it is. I don’t know about Battlestar Galactus or Paddington 5 or Expansys or whatever it is that you like. I only know the classics.

Photo by Craig Adderley on

Torpedoes come in two types. Star Wars has proton torpedoes (if you fire one into a sewer it ignites all the old poop and makes it destroy the whole base) and Star Trek has photon torpedoes (these are often fired as a “full spread” which implies there are roasties, Yorkshire puddings and possibly pigs in blankets on the side).

But how scary are they?

Science can tell us.

A proton, as anyone who listened for 5 seconds in GCSE science knows, is a hydrogen ion. Basic boring old hydrogen is a single proton with a single electron floating around it. Take the electron away and you’ve got protons. Do you know what’s really rich in protons? Acid. Even a really weak acid has trillions* of spare protons in it.

Canonically we don’t know whether Star Wars torpedoes have a warhead of lemon juice, vinegar or possibly even Viakal. Sadly there are no scenes of brave flight technicians precisely measuring teaspoonfuls of Diet Coke into primed torpedoes. What we do know is that the torpedoes would definitely get the limescale off their targets with their rich proton loads. Star Destroyers probably shine like chrome after a good old space battle.

We can only speculate about how the first Death Star was destroyed. Did it have a core made of millions of tons of sodium, just waiting to recreate the most exciting moment of A-Level chemistry but at grand scale? Only Darth Vader knows. And he can’t tell us because he isn’t real.

Over in the Star Trek universe we’re all wearing our uniforms that are apparently solely designed to make cosplaying unsexy, and we’ve tried shooting the enemies with phasers (the first time I used the guitar pedal of the same name I was sorely disappointed). It didn’t work. It usually doesn’t. Phasers only exist to provide a moment of tension by not working. So it’s time to up the stakes. We will unleash the fearsome photon torpedoes!

In tedious-science-explanation land, a photon is the smallest possible unit of electromagnetic energy. It is the basic unit of light. Photons move pretty fast, in fact they move at the speed of light. That’s why it’s called that. Physicists are pretty literal. That’s how they came up with units like “Light-year (ly)f” and “Earth mass (M⊕)”.

It’s easy to blast your enemy with literally trillions* of photons; Just point a torch at them. Is this the payload of the fearsome photon torpedo? We know they’re big enough to fit a dead Vulcan in, ears and all (from the second movie) so they could hold some serious lighting. “Priming photon torpedoes” presumably means turning on all of the torches in each one by hand. Although, if all those torches had poorly-made lithium batteries and it got a bit warm, the photon torpedo might make a perfect incendiary bomb.

Is anyone else not scared? I’m not scared.

*It might be more. I refuse to do the maths.


A dismissal of the other forms of Star Trek torpedo, most of which only appear in one episode of Voyager when the writers were desperate because, against all the odds, Deep Space Nine was eating their lunch. It turns out we just wanted to see someone drink silently at a bar while Worf seduced every female character on a space station. Who knew?

fusion torpedo – This is what is known in normal human history as a thermonuclear or H Bomb. This is scary shit. It was also invented in the 1950s which suggests other cultures should have come up with a way of blocking it by now.

photonic torpedo – A more-sciencey-sounding version of a photon torpedo, presumably.

plasma torpedo – I’m assuming this is full of ionised superheated gas, not human blood with the cells removed. I’m not sure how scary that would be to anyone except a vegetarian. Less threatening than a fusion torpedo either way.

quantum torpedo – the smallest possible unit of torpedo

spatial torpedo – a torpedo that is used in outer space? Or that occupies some physical space? It doesn’t seem that scary. Or well named.

transphasic torpedo – I’m not sure why anyone would want to add phasers (which don’t work, ever) to a torpedo?

gravimetric torpedo – Uh oh look out this torpedo has mass!

NB from Girlymicro. If you’d like to submit a guest book review or guest blog drop me a line on the links on the right of the page

All opinions on this blog are my own

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