PROVO, Utah — BYU planetary scientist Jani Radebaugh suspects Anakin Skywalker would not like her doom-and-gloom prognosis for the pending fate of his hometown — inundation by sand dune.
Radebaugh visited Skywalker's childhood desert village, the dangerous, crime-infested spaceport of Mos Espa, on a field trip during a planetary science conference in 2009. Mos Espa is actually a set in the Tunisian desert built for scenes in the Star Wars prequel trilogy about Skywalker's youth on the planet Tatooine, where he grew up with his mother as slaves owned by Watto and where he raced his pod against Sebulba.
Radebaugh and several colleagues were looking at dry lake beds that resembled formations the scientists hoped to find on other planets, such as Mars, where robots are searching for signs of water. They stopped by the set, a village of fake buildings constructed for the movies in the Oung Jmel area and were left behind after filming at the request of the Tunisian tourist office. The set is now an attraction that draws 100,000 tourists per year. Radebaugh's group missed the pod races, but they spotted a dune about 20 feet high and 300 feet wide headed directly toward the set.
Local officials were already aware of the threat posed by the dune, but after the convention, Radebaugh and her colleagues used images from Google Earth and other publicly available resources to track the progress of the dune, which they determined moves about 50 feet per year. They published their findings, and their novel technique, which used resources available to anyone, in the journal Geomorphology.
The dune already has reached the edge of the set and has started to swallow some of it. The moving dune melds the fictional story of Star Wars with reality. In the Star Wars universe, Mos Espa is located near the Dune Sea, an unforgiving desert where humans could dehydrate in 30 minutes. In real-world Tunisia, an unrelenting desert dune is flowing at 50 feet per year to engulf Mos Espa.
Scientists in Tunisia continue to monitor the dune's movement, and this summer they sent Radebaugh a picture of a Mos Espa dwelling already overtaken by the sand, she said. They have few options that would save the set. Bulldozing the dune would only clear the way for a second, larger dune also traveling toward the set. The best option, Radebaugh said, is probably to move the entire set out of the dune field.
The study was particularly interesting to Radebaugh, an associate professor of geological sciences who has studied similar dunes on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Sand dunes move faster than many other geological features and are a good reminder that nothing on the Earth's surface is a permanent fixture, Radebaugh said.
"We need to be aware of our surroundings and work with nature, instead of trying to battle those forces," she said.