Migrating sand dunes in the Tunisian desert are threatening to bury the set of Mos Espa City—one of the most famous filming locations captured in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and the childhood home of one of the franchise’s main characters, Darth Vader. Part of the adjacent set used in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope has already been buried by the desert sand.

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Crescent-shaped barchans, sand formations that are also seen on both Mars and Saturn’s largest moon Titan, are shifted by the strong desert winds and can swallow entire cities. Sand grains are pushed up the shallow slope to fall down the steep part of the dune, in the lee of the wind. Steady prevailing winds create crescent arms pointing downwards.

A team of researchers recently published a study in the journal Geomorphology that showed the Star Wars film set lies between the arms of a large barchan dune which has since 2002 moved from 140m away from the site to only 10m away. Scientists Ralph Lorenz, from Johns Hopkins University, Jason Barnes from the University of Idaho and Nabil Gasmi of the University of Sousse, Tunisia,  visited the site in 2009 and 2011 and confirmed the barchan to be threatening to the site, noting that a smaller set nearby was already overrun by dunes in 2004.

The barchans are moving at a rate of approximately 15 meters a year and are headed towards the Qui-Gon’s Alley part of the set. It is expected that the barchans will continue their journey across the site which will eventually re-emerge, but not before the structures experience some substantial damage from the sand.

+ Dunes on Planet Tatooine Study


Figures from the Dunes on Planet Tatooine Study, Photos by Ralph D. Lorenz