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Tatooine Is About To Be Reclaimed by the Desert

The Star Wars set is about to be buried, but in the mean time it's helping scientists do real research

The “town” of Mos Espa, the home of Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode I. Photo: cdaven80

In the deserts of Tunisia, George Lucas and crew built the skyline of Mos Espa, the home of Anakin and Shmi Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Now, 14 years since that movie was first released, the home where Qui-Gon and Jar Jar and the Queen of Naboo hid out from a sandstorm is being overtaken by the sand for real. In a new study lead by Ralph Lorenz, researchers have found that sand dunes are swiftly encroaching on the Star Wars set. Since Mos Espa was first constructed in 1997, say the scientists in their paper, the sand dunes have moved 130 meters, set to bury the fake town.

The Mos Espa set in 2004 and 2009 as seen in Google Earth. Photo: Lorenz et al.

These scientists weren’t aiming for a prize in obsessive Star Wars geekdom, though. Rather, the Mos Espa construction gave the John Hopkins University geomorphologist a steady frame of reference to track the ever-shifting sands. Lorenz and his colleagues are interested in understanding how sand dunes (known as barchans) move, and the Star Wars set gave them a good way to see changes in dune location.

The set, with identifiers for the town’s buildings. Photo: Lorenz et al.

The scientists have some sad news for any would-be Tatooine tourists, says the BBC:

Moving at around 15m a year, the front edge of the barchan appears to have made contact with some of the Mos Espa buildings earlier this year, and is encroaching on Qui-Gon’s Alley.

The barchan will probably continue on its journey past the city site, which in due course will re-emerge from the sand, but it is anticipated that it will not remain unscathed.

According to the scientists, “Should the barchan that forms the focus of this paper overrun the Mos Espa set, many buildings will be temporarily buried.”

Their rather flimsy construction will mean roofs will likely collapse, degrading the attraction of the site when the dune moves on. This has already been seen at a smaller film set (‘Repro Haddada’…sometimes referred to online as the ‘slave quarters’)

…This structure was overrun by a barchan around 2004, and has been substantially demolished, although it is still an object of pilgrimage by Star Wars fans, who also admire the barchans a few hundred meters to the south, which are prominent in several scenes of the movie.

Even if Mos Espa survives the swiftly moving dune, says Lorenz and colleagues, the town is still likely doomed.

In the long run, Mos Espa is still threatened: the large barchan (big enough to totally submerge the site) looms about 500 m to the east. In fact this dune is often driven over en route to the Mos Espa site, reportedly by ~80% of the visiting vehicles. Although the imminent threatening barchan and other effects may degrade the site on this timescale anyway, at the observed migration rate of ~6 m/yr, this large barchan will begin overrunning the site in about 80 years.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Sauropods of Star Wars
Could the Death Star Destroy a Planet?

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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