If by some miracle we are able to go to Titan and build a sand castle, it will retain its shape for days because of the electrostatic properties of the ‘electrically charged sand’ on Saturn’s moon, a new study has shown.
A study published in journal Nature Geoscience describes work by scientists led by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology that suggests that the sand on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, are “electrically charged.” This effectively means that when Titan’s non-silicate granules get kicked up and start to hop in a motion referred to as saltation, they collide and become frictionally charged, like a balloon rubbing against your hair, and clump together becoming resistant to further motion.
Researchers say if we were to build a sand castle out of this sand, it would retail its shape for days because the grains of sand maintain they charge they have acquired for days or even months at a time and attach to other hydrocarbon substances, much like packing peanuts used in shipping boxes here on Earth.
While that’s something good for the kids and sand art enthusiasts, if any spacecraft would land on Titan’s surface it would have a hard time keeping itself clean because sand would continue piling up on the spacecraft and that in turn will attract more sand grains because they are electrically charged.
To check and prove that such sand will be found on Titan, scientists tested particle flow under Titan-like conditions and for that purpose built a small experiment in a modified pressure vessel in their Georgia Tech lab. They inserted grains of naphthalene and biphenyl — two toxic, carbon and hydrogen bearing compounds believed to exist on Titan’s surface — into a small cylinder. Then they rotated the tube for 20 minutes in a dry, pure nitrogen environment (Titan’s atmosphere is composed of 98 percent nitrogen). Afterwards, they measured the electric properties of each grain as it tumbled out of the tube.
Scientists note that about 2 to 5 per cent of the particles didn’t come out of the vessel as they clung to the inside and stuck together. When such an experiment was repeated for sand and volcanic ash in Earth like conditions, all the particles came out.
Earth sand does pick up electrical charge when it’s moved, but the charges are smaller and dissipate quickly. That’s one reason why you need water to keep sand together when building a sand castle. Not so with Titan, scientists say.