Saturn has been stealing the imaginations of scientists and laymen alike in recent weeks with a host of new discoveries in the planet’s vast satellite system. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is working overtime as of late, capturing images of potentially life-bearing chemicals found in Enceladus’ enormous water plumes and a recent discovery made on the planet’s largest moon, Titan.
Apparently, the planet’s sand would be amazing for sand castles if enthusiasts were ever to arrive there.
A recent study on the planet’s surface concludes that the sand on Titan is electrified with such strong static that sand particles form an extremely tight bond with one another. Joshua Méndez, a granular dynamicist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, says that the planet’s geology is like Earth only at surface value.
At first glance, if you look at images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, Titan looks very Earth-like, with dunes, lakes, oceans, mountains and potentially volcanoes, and it has a dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere like Earth’. But once you start looking at the details, you realize that it is an alien and exciting world.
These differences come from the sand’s ability to pick up an electric charge through the “triboelectric effect,” the same process in which we pick up static and shock one another. Earth’s sand is able to undergo the same effect, but it does not stick as Titan’s sand does thanks to its strong gravitational pull, which overpowers any cling generated by the static.
On Titan, where the gravity is seven times weaker than Earth’s, the cling is able to hold thanks to it not being so easily overpowered. Méndez also attributes this shaping ability to the sand’s lighter composition, which is fluffier than the silicate minerals that make up the sand on Earth.
Need to rethink how we perceive the surface of other planets
In fact, the cling is so strong that not even the winds can knock it down. Méndez’s study might finally provide an explanation as to why the moon’s prevailing winds don’t flow with the direction of its giant dunes.
Our findings highlight that caution is needed when applying models from Earth to other environments. We have to rethink our assumptions with a world as different as Titan.
Thanks to its Nitrogen-rich atmosphere, Titan is often seen as one of the stopping points for human colonization as space exploration expands to the outer reach of our solar system.