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Grains on Titan would cling to a spacecraft ‘like packing peanuts’

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Particles that cover the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, are electrically charged and can get clingy—much like packing peanuts cling to things on Earth.

When the wind blows hard enough (approximately 15 mph), the granules get kicked up and start to hop in a motion referred to as saltation. As they collide, they become frictionally charged, like a balloon rubbing against your hair, and clump together in a way not observed for sand dune grains on Earth.
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.

“These non-silicate, granular materials can hold their electrostatic charges for days, weeks, or months at a time under low-gravity conditions,” says George McDonald, a graduate student who also coauthored the paper.

Visually, Titan is the object in the solar system most like Earth. Data gathered from multiple flybys by Cassini since 2005 have revealed large liquid lakes at the poles, as well as mountains, rivers and potentially volcanoes. However, instead of water-filled oceans and seas, they’re composed of methane and ethane and are replenished by precipitation from hydrocarbon-filled clouds.

Titan’s surface pressure is a bit higher than our planet—standing on the moon would feel similar to standing 15 feet underwater here on Earth.

“Titan’s extreme physical environment requires scientists to think differently about what we’ve learned of Earth’s granular dynamics,” says Dufek. “Landforms are influenced by forces that aren’t intuitive to us because those forces aren’t so important on Earth.

“Titan is a strange, electrostatically sticky world.”


This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: Jason Maderer-Georgia Tech
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