We first meet young Luke Skywalker, hero of the Star Wars movies, on the desert planet Tatooine on the fringe of the Galactic Republic. Luke worked on his Uncle Owen’s “moisture farm” but like any future Jedi knight, he knew he was destined for greater things. At the end of the first scene, Skywalker gazes skyward toward that planet’s two suns, pulled toward a fate he could only guess.
As far as planets go, Tatooine will always be one of my favorites. The exotic dual sunsets, wild expanses of desert and cool architecture of the future left a wonderful impression when I first saw Star Wars back in 1977.
American film producer George Lucas filmed scenes for his fictional planet at various locations across the real deserts of Tunisia. As for the name Tatooine, it was adapted from the Tunisian city Tatahouine, an oasis town in southern part of that country.
In the film, it’s pronounced “tatoo-een” but the locals call it “tat-ween”. Although Lucas didn’t film any scenes in the city, the landscape there and across the deserts of Tunisia were the inspiration for Luke’s homeland.
Tatooine/Tatahouine boasts yet another outer space connection. 81 years ago to the day on June 27, 1931 at 1:30 a.m. local time, a fireball exploded above the Tunisian desert 2.5 miles northeast of Tatahouine. Soon after the fall, local Bedouins collected hundreds of small meteorite fragments that peppered a hillside.
What they plucked from the dust was a rare, green-colored meteorite found deep within an asteroid’s crust called a diogenite. Many years later, scientists identified the Tatahouine meteorite’s true home – the asteroid Vesta – by analyzing light reflected from the meteorite and the asteroid. They were a close match.
More recently, the Dawn space probe, which has been keeping an orbital eye on Vesta for months, confirmed that Tatahouine and other diogenite meteorites originated on this little world. A likely scenario for Tatahouine’s delivery to Earth involved a massive impact on the asteroid. Chunks of crustal material were sent flying into space where they drifted for some 38 million years before finding their way to our planet on a tepid June morning in 1931.
Evidence for the power of the impact can be seen in the web of black shock veins of melted rock created instantaneously upon impact. The large orthopyroxene crystals give Tatahouine a unique green color found in few meteorites.
Since the meteorite shattered into thousands of small pieces, tourists to the area can still find fragments to this day. Tatahouine fragments look “naked” or without the typical black fusion crust coating many other meteorites. It blew to bits at a very low altitude, too late and moving too slowly for air friction to melt the exterior of each small piece.
In 2011 NASA announced it had found the first planet in orbit about a double sun like the fictional Tatooine. Named Kepler 16b, the Saturn-mass planet orbits orange and red stars with a period 229 days. With temperatures ranging from 100 to 150 below F, this gas giant Tatooine sadly couldn’t host Jabba the Hut and the delightful cantina pictured in Star Wars.
Before we depart planets alien and otherwise, take a look tonight in the moon’s direction. To its left you’ll see the ever-present pair of Saturn and Spica. Right of the moon is Mars, which will be very close to the 3rd magnitude star Zavijava in the constellation Virgo tonight. Can you split the two apart with you eye? If not, enjoy this temporary “double star” in binoculars.