Electric Sand Makes Up Titan’s Towering Dunes, Scientists Say

First Posted: Mar 29, 2017 04:57 AM EDT

Saturn's largest moon, Titan, is known to be capable of forming sand dunes up to 300 feet high, many of which are facing against the direction of prevailing winds. This piece of cosmic mystery may have finally been solved. Scientists think that the towering dunes could be made up of electrified sand.

Science Alert noted that these electrified sand may clump together like a gritty version of kids' Play-Doh, which explains why the dunes can stand as high as they do. Geophysicist Josef Dufek of Georgia Tech shared, "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."

Explaining the curious sand behavior on Titan had many researchers attributing violent methane storms prevalent in the moon's atmosphere. Dufek and his team, however, took a different approach, citing chemical makeup for the sand behavior instead.

Dissimilar to sand on Earth that is mostly made of silicon dioxide, Titan sands are believed to be solid water ice particles, coated with hydrocarbons that come from the atmosphere. Such particles might move under the state that is seen on Titan. The research team experimented with grains of napthalene and biphenyl. These are compounds that may exist on the moon.

These compounds were then put in a pressurized cylinder full of nitrogen to imitate the moon's atmosphere as well as the friction generated by the wind. Team member Josh Medez Harper noted that the particles were able to charge well, with 2 percent to 5 percent clinging in the tumbler. The same experiment with sand and volcanic ash in Earth-like conditions, however, did not yield the same results.

Huffington Post noted that the sand particles on Titan start to get moved around in a motion known as saltation when the wind blows at least 15 miles an hour. The collision then gives the sand electric charge -- similar to a balloon rubbing on hair -- so that the sand granules stick together in a way that the sand on planet Earth just cannot.

George McDonald, one of the other researchers, shared, "These non-silicate, granular materials can hold their electrostatic charges for days, weeks, or months at a time under low-gravity conditions."

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