How Star Wars Just Inspired a Real-Life Scientific Discovery

The real-life Tatooine may not have two suns—but it has unlocked the secrets of a geomorphic mystery.

Close to Tozeur, Tunisia—George Lucas's stand-in for the barren planet—there's a wilderness of sand that's permanently changing. When wind whistles across the dunes, it pushes that sand into huge, crescent-shaped structures known as barchans. These things are huge, and they move—pretty much wherever the wind forces them too—but scientists have found it hard to quantify those movements. After all, when sand moves on sand, it's difficult to measure absolute positions.

That's where Star Wars comes in. Because in the same barren patch of land is something rather more iconic than sand: It's home to the movie set which served as Mos Espa, Tatooine's go-to spaceport. In fact, the set now lies encircled by a large barchan—and the scientists have been using it as a reference point to determind just how much those barchans have shifted.

With the buildings of the set as fixed geographic points, scientists were able to use satellite imagery to track the movement of the barchan over the years. Turns out, it's schlepping at a whopping 50 feet every year—and is now just 33 feet away from the fictional city, according to a paper published in the journal Geomorphology. That movement is 10 times faster than the movement of similar structures on Mars. It's a surprising result, given how much faster the Red Planet's winds are than ours.

Unfortunately, that also means that the buildings of Mos Espa could soon be swallowed by sand. Not even the Force can help with that. [Geomorphology via BBC via Atlantic]