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As the 'Star Wars' sets decay, fan photos are helping scientists learn how sand moves

As the 'Star Wars' sets decay, fan photos are helping scientists learn how sand moves

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The home of young Anakin Skywalker is about to be lost to the desert winds. A large sand dune is now about 30 feet away from enveloping the set of Mos Espa near Tozeur in Tunisia, which was constructed in 1997 to serve as Anakin's home in The Phantom Menace. But while that may be a loss for Star Wars fans, the city's unfortunate location has actually been a boon for a few geologists: a group of researchers led from Johns Hopkins University have been studying the migration of sand dunes, and photos of the set published online by Star Wars fans have been unwittingly helping them to track the dunes' movements.

Tourism and Google Earth provided nearly enough data

The Mos Espa set has reportedly become a popular destination for fans of the series — so much so that the researchers note that the photos allowed for "continued monitoring" of the nearby dunes in lieu of their own visits. While the team did visit in 2009 and 2011, the remainder of their data came from satellite imagery in Google Earth. Using the combined information, the team determined that the dunes were getting about 50 feet closer to Mos Espa every year — a figure that's helped them to assess how quickly sand moves throughout the desert overall.

According to the BBC, Mos Espa should eventually re-emerge as the dunes blow past it, but it isn't expected to make it through without taking some damage. The researchers' findings were published earlier this month in Geomorphology, and they ultimately hope that the work will be used for teaching students: the team suspects that learning about how landforms change over time will be made a lot more interesting when it's presented in the context of a galaxy far, far away.