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Technology

Saturn’s moon Titan has electric sand; research suggests

New experiments conducted by researchers at the Georgia Institute of technology suggest that particles covering the
Published March 30, 2017
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New experiments conducted by researchers at the Georgia Institute of technology suggest that particles covering the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan are in fact ‘electrically charged’.

According to the study, as the winds in titan begin blowing hard enough - approximately 15mph -, Titan’s sand’s non-silicate particles get stirred up and start hopping in a motion which is referred to as ‘saltation’. As the said particles collide with one another, the friction between them charges them that they become resistant to further motion. The sands consequently maintain the charge for days even months at a time and attach themselves to other hydrocarbon substances.

The findings have freshly been published in the acclaimed science journal, Nature Geoscience.

Georgia Tech professor who also led the study, Josef Dufek says, "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. 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."

The electrifications discoveries may aid in elucidating a bizarre phenomenon. Widespread winds on Titan blow from east to west across its surface, but dunes of sand nearly 300 feet tall seem to form in the contradictory direction.

"These electrostatic forces increase frictional thresholds, 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," said Josh Méndez Harper, a Georgia Tech geophysics and electrical engineering doctoral student who is the paper's lead author.

To investigate the flow of particles under Titan-like conditions, the researchers constructed a small experiment in a modified pressure vessel in the Georgia Tech Lab. The scientists then inserted small granules of naphthalene and biphenyl – two of the most toxic carbon and hydrogen bearing compounds believed to exist on Titan’s surface – into a petite cylinder.

Then they rotated the tube for 20 minutes, in a dry, pure nitrogen environment as Titan’s atmosphere is comprised of 98 percent nitrogen. Doing so, they afterwards measured the electric properties of each gran as it stumbled out of the tube.

"All of the particles charged well, and about 2 to 5 percent didn't come out of the tumbler. 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," said Méndez Harper.

Earth sand does pick up electrical charge when it's moved, but the charges are smaller and dissipate quickly. That's one reason why you need water to keep sand together when building a sand castle. Not so with Titan.

"Titan's extreme physical environment requires scientists to think differently about what we've learned of Earth's granular dynamics. 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," Dufek concluded.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2017

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