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Continuity, Criticisms, and Captain Panaka
by: Dan Wallace
date posted: Jun 06, 2005 4:53 PM  | 
updated: Jun 18, 2006 7:34 PM
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Cloaking Devices
Here it is -- everything you ever wanted to know about cloaking devices. NOW UPDATED with reader feedback!

I've actually been meaning to post this ever since Celebration III. During the continuity panel at C3, a fan asked to clear up the confusion regarding the various types of cloaking devices introduced in the Expanded Universe. Leland Chee and I eagerly jumped on the question and batted it back and forth between us for a while. Meanwhile the rest of the panel (and probably 80% of the audience) started to go glassy-eyed.

But if you're one of the 20% like me and Leland who love this stuff, here comes -- cloaking devices!

There are two main types of cloaking devices developed in the SW universe: stygium cloaks and hibridium cloaks.

UPDATE: Leland Chee points out that the correct spelling is "stygium," not stygian (a word that means "gloomy, infernal, hellish," so thank you Ronnie James Dio). I have changed the spelling throughout.

STYGIUM CLOAKS:
Operate pretty much like magic invisibility screens (or cloaking devices from Star Trek), but have some limitations (for instance, Darth Maul's stygium-cloaked ship can be detected under certain conditions).

As the name implies, they are powered by Stygium crystals -- very rare minerals which are only found on Aeten II, a hidden planet in the Dreighton Nebula (this is a retcon involving elements from the game Rebel Assault 2). In at least one incident, stygium crystals have been successfuly grown offworld (on an island on the planet Maramere, in the comic book Star Wars Crossbones).

It's unclear when stygium cloaks were developed, but probably (I'm guessing) within the past century or so.

UPDATE: Reader MasterObi-Wan points out that a cloaked ship appears in the game Knights of the Old Republic 2, meaning that stygium cloaks have existed for at least 4000 years (this would also provide plenty of time for the mines on Aeten II to run dry).

During the TPM era: Stygium cloaks are used on Maul's Sith Infiltrator, but are also common enough to be seen on Jedi vessels (Qui-Gon asks Ric Olie if the Queen's ship has a cloak, so he's clearly familar with this sort of thing) and also on civilian vessels (Obi-Wan recalls riding on a civilian freighter equipped with a cloak in one of the Jedi Apprentice books). At this time the stygium crystal supply from Aeten II starts to dry up. The crystals can't be stockpiled (they deteriorate when pulled from the planet's crust) and the planet becomes a war zone of competing Republic and criminal factions.

During the Clone Wars era: The mines of Aeten II are pretty much played out. Cloaks start to disappear in the galaxy as cloak-equipped ships find themselves unable to resupply their stygium arrays.

During the Classic trilogy era: The Emperor, demanding some kind of cloak, tasks Grand Admiral Batch with solving the problem. Batch, supervising Admiral Sarn and the Super Star Destroyer Terror (Rebel Assault 2 retcon again), goes to Aeten II in the Dreighton Nebula to see if he can get any stygium crystals from the gutted planet (but he can't). Therefore, Batch invests heavily in a second line of research:

HIBRIDIUM CLOAKS (aka "DOUBLE BLIND" CLOAKS):
These are the "Tim Zahn" cloaks familiar to readers of the Thrawn trilogy. They provide an invisibility screen of limited effectiveness -- when activated, people inside the screen can't see out.

UPDATE: Hibridium cloaks were introduced in the Thrawn trilogy and retconned into the classic trilogy (the name "hibridium" comes from the Alex Winger short stories by Charlene Newcomb), but they appear to have existed since at least the prequel era, thanks to this HoloNet News story.

During the post-ESB era: Grand Admiral Batch sends some hybridium-cloaked prototypes, including a shuttlecraft, to Palpatine, who seals them in Mount Tantiss (for future use in the Thrawn trilogy).

Palpatine, being a crafty guy, and not wanting to keep all his eggs in one basket, sets up a separate cloaking task force, Project Vorknkx, under the nominal supervision of Grand Admiral Thrawn to investigate hibridium cloaks to their fullest (this is a retcon involving the game TIE Fighter).

Grand Admiral Batch, meanwhile, has an inspiration. He pulls rank to have the nearly-finished Tarkin superlaser diverted to Aeten II where it blows up the planet. Voila -- millions of free-floating stygium crystals! (This is the retcon of retcons, involving the Tarkin from the Marvel comics in an attempt to explain how the Empire could have such cool "stygium" type cloaks during the game Rebel Assault 2 despite the evidence to the contrary.)

Grand Admiral Batch quickly puts together his own project, the "Phantom TIE" project, to overshadow Project Vorknkx, get into Palpy's good graces, and resurrect the stygium cloak after a twenty-year absence. At the project's height, Batch cloaks a bunch of V-38 TIE fighters, the SSD Terror, and an entire docking facility (guess he goes a little overboard). Everybody's favorite Rebel hero 'Rookie One' subsequently destroys the entire Phantom TIE project, spelling an end to stygium-cloak technology. (Yep, Rebel Assault 2.)

Meanwhile, the other team -- Project Vorknkx (TIE Fighter, remember?) -- succeeds in equipping a Corellian corvette with a hibridium cloak. Unfortunately it doesn't work too well. When Grand Admiral Zaarin steals the corvette, he winds up killing himself when the cloak explodes as the ship enters hyperspace.

During the post-ROJ era: Cloaks are pretty much non-existent for a few years, and many folks forget all about them.

During the Thrawn Trilogy era (5 years after ROJ): Grand Admiral Thrawn, based on knowledge he acquired during Project Vorknkx, obtains some of the hibridium-cloaks from the Emperor's storehouse in Mount Tantiss. Adapting the technology, he comes up with several clever uses for the devices (e.g. cloaking a cargo hold, cloaking some ships to create a 'superlaser' illusion, cloaking a swarm of asteroids) that make up for the flaw of their double-blindness.

During the Specter of the Past era (15 years after ROJ): The Empire uses hibridium cloaks once again, this time cloaking a few Star Destroyers and tethering them to a comet in the Bothawui system. Much mayhem ensues.

UPDATE: Big Hanging Question: Why does Captain Needa say, "They can't have escaped -- no ship that small has a cloaking device" when he loses sight of the Millennium Falcon during ESB?

Neither of the options above (hibridium or stygium) really answers the ESB question, since both have been seen to have been used on relatively small ships in the past (Maul's ship and the Phantom TIEs for stygium cloaks, the Vorknkx corvette and Palpatine's shuttle for hibridium cloaks).

At the time that Needa made the statement, Grand Admiral Batch was still undergoing his cloaking research. It's therefore likely that Needa wasn't aware of the latest developments concerning hibridium cloaks. I would venture a guess that Needa was referring to stygium cloak technology, and that perhaps a few vessels in the Imperial Navy still had stygium cloaks, that they required massive amounts of juice to keep the energies in the dying crystal arrays still viable, and were therefore only used on vessels equipped with Star Destroyer-level power plants.

That's just me advancing a line of speculation, but it's a cool idea, isn't it?

NEW UPDATE: Reader JSarek points out that I might be dismissing hibridium cloaks and Captain Needa too easily. He makes the good point that, if hibridium cloaks have been in the public eye since before Episode II (as referenced in the HoloNet News article linked above), then it's possible that Needa was referring to hibridium cloaks with his "no ship that small" comment. The thinking here would be that when the Aeten II stygium mines started to run dry (after the Clone Wars), the Empire poured its resources into developing hibridium cloaks, but could only produce clunky first-generation versions that required massive outputs of power (i.e. really big ships) to run them. In this scenario, Grand Admiral Batch's hibridium research would have been a tweak of existing technology -- turning the hibridium cloak from an expensive curiosity (in Needa's experience) into something practical.

BOTH SCENARIOS ABOVE mean that the Empire must have been in possession of some kind of cloaking device in the years prior to ESB. That's hardly news (Needa's statement pretty much demands that this be the case), but surprisingly it's an issue that's never really been dealt with in the EU.

Dan
(writing projects and current releases)