Titan is one of the weirdest things there is in space with all its methane seas and frozen volcanoes. Then add this possibility: electric sand.
Titan is one of at least 62 moons orbiting around Saturn.
Titan's sands, when blown by the wind, start to move in a motion called as saltation. As each granule collides with each other, it becomes frictionally charged and bundle together. The charge in each granule remained for several days or even months.
Josef Dufek, a professor of Georgia Institute of Technology and co-leader of the study, said the electrostatic properties of the sand dunes could bundle these granules together for weeks.
The findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, may shed light on the odd sand dune formation on Titan's surface.
Titan winds blow in east-west direction but sand dunes about 300 feet high are formed in the opposite direction.
The increased frictional threshold made these sand dunes sticky. It even needs stronger winds to move them, study lead author Josh Mendez Harper, geophysics and electrical engineering doctoral student at Georgia Tech, explained.
The wind on Titan's surface is not enough to influence the formation of dunes, he said.
Experiment Simulating Titan Conditions
Experiments conducted in the laboratory simulating the conditions in Titan using a pressure container tend to support the explanation.
The researchers inserted grains of naphthalene and biphenyl, carbon, and hydrogen bearing substances believed to be present on Titan's surface.
The cylinder is rotated for 20 minutes in a pure nitrogen environment to simulate moon's atmosphere. After which, they dumped out the granules to measure its electric properties.
Around 2 to 5 percent of the particles did not come out of the container.
"They clung to the inside and stuck together," Mendez Harper said.
When a similar experiment was conducted under Earth-like conditions using sand and volcanic ash, none of the substances stuck.
Strange, Sticky World
The researchers noted that Earth sand can become electrically charged when moved but the amount of charge is insignificant and can easily dissipate. This explains why water is needed to make sand glue together when building a castle on the sand, but it is not the case in Titan.
Several flybys since 2005 by Cassini revealed its polar liquid lakes, mountains, rivers, and volcanoes. Instead of oceans filled with water, it is made up of methane and ethane replenished by precipitation of hydrocarbon from its atmosphere. The pressure on its surface, however, is greater than the Earth's that to stand on the moon is just like standing some 15 feet underwater on Earth.
Dufek said the formations on Titan is caused by factors that evade the perception of the terrestrial observer because "those forces aren't so important on Earth."
"Titan is a strange, electrostatically sticky world," he said.