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When this exchange happens during the final batter in Return of the Jedi (1983), how was “north” determined within the structure of the Death Star?

LANDO: There it is. All right, Wedge, go for the power regulator on the north tower.

WEDGE: Copy, Gold Leader. I'm already on my way out.

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    Easy, it's at the top. Commented Oct 11, 2022 at 15:15
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    If you go into a mine on the Earth (so, inside of a "sphere"), North is still defined. Commented Oct 11, 2022 at 15:25
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    @Bob: that's crazy. If there's no top, it could easily end up flying around space upside-down, which would make the Empire look very silly. Commented Oct 11, 2022 at 16:00
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    @PaulD.Waite :O external-preview.redd.it/…
    – Milo P
    Commented Oct 11, 2022 at 16:05
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    By one definition, “the north pole” of an astronomical object is the point on its surface around which it rotates counterclockwise. I don't recall if the Death Star had a consistent rotation direction, though.
    – dan04
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 0:20

3 Answers 3

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From Star Wars: Complete Locations (2016):

Image from Star Wars: Complete Locations showing the Death Star II's polar column

1 The primary stage focused on assembling components necessary for construction of the main reactor core—approximately one-tenth the diameter of the entire structure—and the immense cylindrical polar column, which served to distribute power and stabilize the Death Star's rotational capabilities.

Star Wars: Complete Locations (2016), page 166, "Death Star II", emphasis added

In Return of the Jedi, we see the Rebels making their attack at the center of the area marked "Reactor core" on the diagram (indicated by hand-drawn red circle). Since it's connected to the "Polar column", the north tower is the tower connected to the north pole, which in space is less ambiguous than "the upper tower".

The asymmetry is made clear in the hologram of the Death Star II in the Rebel briefing:

Image from Return of the Jedi showing a hologram of the Death Star II's reactor core

Image from Return of the Jedi showing the Death Star II's central reactor core

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  • It's also orbiting around a moon, which itself is orbiting a planet, both called Endor, and both of which have north and south poles, so it's probably aligned with them. The same could've been said for the first Death Star when it was orbiting Alderaan. Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 14:30
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Artificial gravity in Star Wars works weirdly, compared to real world artificial gravity which requires the spaceship to rotate. Star Wars artificial gravity just picks a direction as 'down' and makes it work.

This might be hard to observe in a small fighter like an X-wing, where the pilot is strapped to a chair. And it is hard to observe in a large spherical Death Star. But you can easily see how Star Wars artificial gravity works in a ship such as the Falcon - people walk around normally and stuff falls in the direction nominated as 'down'.

It's worth noting, Lando doesn't use the word 'North'. He uses a word, phrase or concept in the language 'Galactic Basic', which is dubbed for the movie into whatever language is appropriate for the region the movie is released into.

English people in the real world think of the Earth rotating with North "at the top", because that's where England is (and USA and Canada). It's where people first started drawing maps of the world. This "north = top and Australian's live upside down" concept has persisted through the development of air and space travel.

When translating the movie into English, it therefore makes sense to have North be the bit at the top of the map, the bit at the highest gravitational potential energy. That leaves the south on the bottom of the death sta.

It's unclear whether people in the Star Wars universe have a similar concept of 'Northern Hemisphere is on top and Southern Hemisphere is upside down', so we don't know what word they would use if we could see the 'Galactic Basic' version of Star Wars.

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    I wouldn't call Star Wars' artificial gravity "weird" so much as "exactly like nearly every sci-fi franchise before and since". Of course due to the fact that they're all filmed in Earth gravity. Simulating zero-G or rotation-based gravity is difficult and expensive. (Though Kubrick managed it in the 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey", a rare exception.) Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 13:42
  • @DarrelHoffman - Not as rare as you suggest. The Martian, Interstellar. I haven't seen the movie but considering the source material, I'd be surprised if Ender's Game got gravity wrong. I'd suggest gravity is a good way to determine what is scifi, and what just happens to be set in space. Star Wars is a Space Opera. Firefly is a Western. Dr Who is about magic, not technology. Battlestar Galactica and Warhammer 40k/Battlefleet Gothic are a weird reverse steam-punk. While the story goes into scifi elements, the combat is WWII in space.
    – Scott
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 1:39
  • Star Trek franchise, Alien franchise, Babylon 5, Farscape, Blake's 7, Dark Matter, Stargate, The Orville, even among the ones you mentioned, Firefly, Dr. Who, Battlestar Galactica (original or reboot)... For every scifi that gets it right, there's probably dozens that didn't bother because it's just too difficult to film. Sure there's a few exceptions. I'd add For All Mankind as a current one that tries to be closer to reality about gravity. At the time Star Wars came out, 2001 was probably the only exception, and there's still really only a handful of them. Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 13:42
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The same way as on Earth: it's defined by convention.

Specifically, the direction of spin of a body relative to the celestial background is a vector found with the right hand rule (or cross-products). That vector is "celestial north". This actually matters a great deal if you want to do orbital mechanics calculations, because it also defines which direction is positive (which you need t get correct if you're trying to launch into orbit from a spinning body).

Here on Earth, you might have heard that magnetic north is slightly off from "true" north. The "true" north referenced there is the celestial pole.

There is also an orbital north, which is normal to the orbit instead of to the spin. That's convenient for some things, but less convenient for establishing a reference system on an object. Here, Lando was almost certainly referencing celestial north, not orbital north.

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  • You're suggesting that the Death Star rotates? That seems contrary to the portrayal of it presenting a single aspect as it approaches firing position on Yavin IV (DS1) or in orbit over the Forest Moon (DS2). It would make it a lot harder to use as a fighting platform if you had to constantly wait for it to rotate onto a target bearing...
    – DavidW
    Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 12:48
  • @DavidW relative to the celestial background? Of course it rotates! When it's above Yavin, it's (roughly) orbiting and the laser is tracking the rebel base. That means it is rotating WRT the stars.
    – fectin
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 20:20

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