Saturn’s Moon Titan Is Covered In Electric Sand

Posted: Mar 29 2017, 4:23am CDT | by , Updated: Mar 29 2017, 4:27am CDT, in News

Saturn’s Moon Titan is Covered in Electric Sand
An artist's impression of the surface of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. Credit: Georgia Tech

The sand on Titan's surface is electrically charged and resistent to motion

Titan is a weird world. It is the only moon in the solar system known to have a dense atmosphere and evidences suggests that it also contains seas and lakes of liquid water beneath its surface.

A huge area of Titan's surface, mainly around the moon's equator, is covered with dunes, similar to those seen in deserts here on Earth. But scientists think these dunes are not made of silicates as on Earth, but of sand coated with hydrocarbon that fall from the atmosphere. Now, a new research suggests that the sand that covers the surface of Titan moon has electrically charged particles.

When the wind blows hard enough around 15 miles per hour, non-silicate grains of Titan's sand transported upward. As they bump into each other, they turn into electrically charged granular and clump together, resulting in towering linear dunes.

“If you grabbed piles of grains and built a sand castle on Titan, it would perhaps stay together for weeks due to their electrostatic properties,” said Josef Dufek, the Georgia Tech professor and co-lead author of the study. “Any spacecraft that lands in regions of granular material on Titan is going to have a tough time staying clean. Think of putting a cat in a box of packing peanuts.”

Researchers have reached the conclusion after replicating Titan-like conditions in the lab. To understand particle flow under Titan-like conditions, researchers placed grains of naphthalene and bipheny in a chamber under the conditions found on Titan’s surface and grind them for 20 minutes in a small cylindrical tube.

When researchers poured the material out of the tube, many of the grains were electrically charged and resistant to the motion. Even a small amount of the material stuck at the bottom of the tube.

Sand on Titan is sticky and clump together in a way not observed for sand dune grains on Earth.

“All of the particles charged well, and about 2 to 5 percent didn’t come out of the tumbler.” said Josh Méndez Harper, a Georgia Tech geophysics. “They clung to the inside and stuck together. When we did the same experiment with sand and volcanic ash using Earth-like conditions, all of it came out. Nothing stuck.”

This could explain why sandy dunes on Titan form in the opposite direction of the prevailing winds which blow from east to west across the moon’s surface.

“These electrostatic forces increase frictional thresholds,” said Méndez Harper. “This makes the grains so sticky and cohesive that only heavy winds can move them. The prevailing winds aren’t strong enough to shape the dunes.”

The dunes on Titan are gigantic reaching up to 300 feet in length and hundreds of miles in width. Researchers have been paying attention to these unique dunes since arrival of Cassini in Saturn system and are trying to figure out why these dunes are so different from those on Earth.

“Titan’s extreme physical environment requires scientists to think differently about what we’ve learned of Earth’s granular dynamics,” said Dufek. “Landforms are influenced by forces that aren’t intuitive to us because those forces aren’t so important on Earth. Titan is a strange, electrostatically sticky world.”

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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