In the new trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII — The Last Jedi, skimmer spacecrafts zoom over a white plain as they trail plumes of red. This foreboding scene is a sneak peek at the newest planet in the Star Wars universe — and, if you pulled out the skimmers, could be interpreted as a visual nod to real celestial bodies, astrogeologists tell Inverse.
Director and The Last Jedi writer Rian Johnson told Entertainment Tonight that this new planet is called Crait. The red dust following the spacecrafts, he says, isn’t exhaust but rather minerals being picked up from the planet floor in the quake of the flyover.
“It’s way out there. It’s very remote. It’s uncharted,” Johnson says. “It’s a mineral planet and so there are mines on it.” He adds that the white ground seen in the clip is a “dusting of salt over this red, ruby-ish mineral base.”
Have actual scientists ever come across anything like Crait? Ken Herkenhoff, an astrogeologist with the United States Geological Survey and a co-investigator at the Mars Science Laboratory, told Inverse that the fact that Crait is a “mineral planet” isn’t a great clue because all rocky planets contain minerals. But there are two options that stand out above others.
“We have found salts on Mars, and Mars is red, so that’s a possible analog,” says Herkenhoff by e-mail. “Another possible comparison is Psyche, the metal asteroid that may contain economic resources.”
There’s one particular Mars location that could make the best comparison, Herkenhoff says. The Meridiani Planum doesn’t have the same thick salt crust as Crait, but vast deposits of sulfates and other salts, including halite (table salt), have been observed in this region by orbiting spacecraft and rovers. These high levels of salt, NASA announced in 2004, “strongly suggest the rocks contain evaporite deposits, which form when water evaporates or ice sublimes into the atmosphere.” This, in turn, suggests to scientists that a shallow salt water sea once covered Meridiani.
If Mars is an analog for Crait, the red of the soil could be a hint to the levels of oxygen on the planet. On Mars, the red of the soil and rocks is an effect of iron oxidation (the same process happens when iron rusts on Earth). The oxygen levels on Mars comprise 0.1 percent of the atmosphere, although scientists believe the planet may have contained more oxygen billions of years ago. The interaction of oxygen and iron is what creates the red color that permeates the planet — and could be why the soil on Crait, once kicked up by the ground-skimmers, is red as well.
Though Crait is a planet in the Star Wars universe, it also resembles a smaller type of celestial body in our universe. Psyche, one of the most massive asteroids in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, is a fitting comparison because it, like Crait, could support space mining. It’s believed to consist of the nickel-iron core of a protoplanet, which makes Psyche the only known round metal body in the solar system and a huge subject of interest for those who want to pursue asteroid mining. While Psyche might not be mined for some time — the first observatory flyby mission is expected to happen in 2030 — mining an asteroid like Psyche for metallic nickel and iron is expected to become the focus of the next major space race.
Which could be a hint to why skimmer speeders are zooming towards what appears to be a group of First Order walkers. Are there mined resources on Crait to be battled over in The Last Jedi? We’ll find out when it’s released on December 15, 2017.