BYU prof: Tunisian sands swallowing Star Wars set
Nature • BYU scientist's study shows sands could cover filmset in five years.
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Want to visit Anakin Skywalker's childhood home? Better hurry.

The Tunisian set from the 1999 Star Wars movie "Episode 1: The Phantom Menace" is being buried by a fast-moving sand dune, according to a new study co-authored by a Brigham Young University professor.

Jani Radebaugh, a planetary scientist, noticed a dune measuring 20 feet tall and 300 feet wide on a 2009 visit to the set depicting the town of Mos Espa. It's a tourist destination in southern Tunisia near the city of Tozeur. The area also offers dry lake beds, date farms and hoodoos Radebaugh found reminiscent of those in Utah's Goblin Valley.

"It's very remote. That's sort of by design," she said.

She and other scientists used images from Google Earth dating back to 2002 to calculate how fast the dune is moving. They clocked it at an average speed of 50 feet per year, a rate that could mean it covers the set in five years. The sand is now about 1/8 of the way through the set, which is about the size of a small town. Radebaugh estimates that the area could be covered in five years.

Radebaugh published their findings last month in the journal Geomorphology, and hopes that drawing attention to the issue will persuade the Tunisian government to move the set about 200 meters south. Bulldozing the dune isn't an option since another, larger one lies just behind it.

Sets from the 1970s-era Star Wars movies have already been overrun.

Dunes are one of the fastest-moving geological features, aside from lava flows and landslides, she said. In a career inspired in part by the Star Wars movies, Radebaugh typically studies nonfiction interplanetary sand —specifically dunes on a moon of Saturn called Titan.

"There's a sea of sand there," she said. "The dunes [in Tunisia] are very much like the dunes on Titan."

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst