Saturn's Moon Titan Is Covered in Electrified Sand

There's a lot of weirdness on Titan. Saturn's largest moon is the only other place in the solar system that we know of that has liquid seas on its surface, but they're full of ethane and methane instead good old H2O. It's home to a volcano that erupts ice and snow. And now, it turns out that even the most mundane geological feature ever—sand—has a shocking surprise for future Titanians. That's right, it's all electrified.

Like a Moon-Sized Dryer

NASA's Cassini spacecraft actually got some great shots of the electrified dunes of Titan in 2016, as you can see in this video:

So what's happening here? Basically, as the wind on the moon kicks up, the granules of sand collide with each other and become frictionally charged, like a staticky sweater you just pulled out of the dryer. The same phenomenon happens on Earth, by the way, but the conditions on Titan make the electrical forces develop much more strongly.

In an experiment at Georgia Tech, researchers took grains of naphthalene and biphenyl (compounds believed to exist on Titan's surface) and put them in a pressure chamber recreating the moon's nitrogen-rich atmosphere. After about 20 minutes of shaking, the sand began to stick together, and about 2–5 percent of it was so electrically charged it wouldn't fall out of the tumbler. According to professor Josef Dudek, who co-led the study, "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."

A Bizarre Mystery Solved

This discovery sheds a lot of light on one of the strangest phenomenon found on Titan. In 2012, the Cassini probe discovered that Titan is covered in massive dunes, about 300 feet tall and hundreds of miles long. The thing is, the winds of Titan blow from east to west while the dunes seem to have been formed from the opposite direction. But because the sand is held together by such strong electromagnetic forces, the wind isn't strong enough to move it. They have other side effects as well—according to Dudek again, any spacecraft that lands on the planet isn't getting away clean. "Think of putting a cat in a box of packing peanuts," he says, and as cute as that may be, it could spell big trouble in a situation where every bit of extra weight counts.

For more about this electrified world, check out "Titan Unveiled: Saturn's Mysterious Moon Explored" by Ralph Lorenz and Jacqueline Mitton. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas April 11, 2017

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