Scientists discover what happens underneath the toxic lakes of Titan during a hydrological cycle. Not only does it leave evaporate materials, these are actually made by a unique combination of benzene and ethane.

As one of the biggest planets in the solar system — it fits 764 Earths — Saturn is remarkable. However, Titan, its largest moon, is just as extraordinary with its giant ice clouds and expansive dunes.

What makes it even more interesting is that it shares many similarities with Earth such as volcanoes, tectonics, and bodies of water, although theirs are composed of methane and ethane.

It's these water forms, specifically what remains after the liquids have evaporated, that captured the researchers' attention: what material, which resembles Earth's bath scum, is left behind?

On Earth, when the bodies of water evaporate, they leave behind materials composed of hydrates and salt. Titan also leaves something, based on the images captured by the Cassini spacecraft, but the scientists haven't figured out exactly what they are made of.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) then undertook an investigation by determining the possible chemicals aside from ethane and methane that could be found on the moon. They combined them to find out which could possibly develop into solid forms and eventually discovered that a mixture of benzene and ethane tend to create the same effect.

However, researchers didn't know how the crystalline material now called benzene: ethane co-crystal actually form or the ratio of these mixtures to achieve the same result as the one found in the moon.

Enter Helen Maynard-Casely of Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (ANSTO) who, together with colleagues who used the "high-energy X-ray beam" of Australian Synchroton, was able to ascertain not only the structure of the material but also the fact that the material is entirely new.

"The benzene molecules form a channel, and the ethane molecules which are more elongated sit down these channels," said Maynard-Casely.

The presence of ethane, which is discovered in the dried-up lakes, is not completely surprising since it's left once methane evaporates and becomes part of the moon's thick atmosphere. Nevertheless, it remains a "remarkable structure," she added.

The study is now available in the open-access journal of International Union of Crystallography (IUCrJ).

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Tags: Saturn Titan