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Hydrocarbon Lakes On Titan May Occasionally Erupt With Nitrogen Bubbles

17 March 2017, 12:35 pm EDT By Samantha Dean Tech Times
Hydrocarbon lakes on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, may erupt on occassion, ejecting nitrogen bubbles in the process. A study funded by NASA has focused on how the phenomenon may occur and also its consequences.  ( NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute )

Titan, the biggest moon of Saturn, has frequently piqued the interest of NASA and is the subject of several studies and research.

A new study funded by NASA, now sheds light on how the hydrocarbon lakes, as well seas on Titan may erupt with patches of bubbles occasionally. The Cassini spacecraft has shared that Titan's composition of the lakes and seas, differs from place to place, with few being ethane rich as compared to methane.

Researchers at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) replicated the harsh and frigid conditions on Titan. They showed how even minor fluctuations in air pressure, temperature and composition of air can result in nitrogen separating quickly from the solution. This is akin to the fizz which one can espy when a soda bottle is opened.

Per the lead author of the study Michael Malaska, the experiment revealed that when both methane- and ethane-rice liquids were mixed, the nitrogen was able to remain in the solution. The release of nitrogen is called exsolution.

What Is Exsolution?

Exsolution or the release of nitrogen occurs mainly during the altering seasons on Titan, when the methane seas become slightly warmer.

This fizzy liquid may further cause trouble, possibly for a future robotic probe that is sent to Titan and has to navigate its way on the moon's seas by floating or swimming.

The massive amounts of heat released from the robotic probe may potentially lead to the formation of plenty of bubbles around it. This could affect the propellers of the probe, making it near impossible for it to function and stay stable.

The Magic Island Concept

The concept of nitrogen bubbles emitting carbonated patches on both the lakes and seas of the Titan, has been linked with another fascinating concept called the "magic islands," as discovered by Cassini.

During several flyby missions, Cassini's radar captured many of the tiny sea areas. These areas literally appeared and disappeared and again reappeared magically. Many researchers theorized different reasons and gave possible explanations for the creation of the supposed island-type features, which included the notion of bubble fields.

The latest research offers a greater insight on what could possibly be causing such bubbles.

"Thanks to this work on nitrogen's solubility, we're now confident that bubbles could indeed form in the seas, and in fact may be more abundant than we'd expected," says Jason Hofgartner the co-author of the study.

Researchers also forced nitrogen out of the simulated ethane-rich solution, right after it froze to the bottom of the frozen simulated Titan Lake. Compared to water, which is denser in its liquid form rather than in solid the state, ethane ice mainly forms at the bottom of Titan's pool.

As soon as the ethane gets crystallized into ice, leaving no space for the solvate nitrogen gas, and it fizzes out.

According to Malaska, the movement of nitrogen on Titan is not fixed in one direction, as it has to get inside both methane and ethane, before it can come out. A related phenomenon happens on Earth, when the oceans absorb the released carbon dioxide.

In a span of two decades, Cassini has supplied NASA plenty of useful data on Titan.

However, the spacecraft will be embarking on its final flyby to Titan on April 22. Cassini will be flying over Titan's northern seas for one last time, observing the magic island features at the same time.

The latest study had been published online in Journal Icarus in February.

Below is the video shared by JPL, showing the concept of Nitrogen fizzing out of ethane slush.

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