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Electrification of sand on Titan and its influence on sediment transport

Nature Geoscience volume 10, pages 260265 (2017) | Download Citation

Abstract

Triboelectric, or frictional, charging is a ubiquitous yet poorly understood phenomenon in granular flows. Recognized in terrestrial volcanic plumes and sand storms, such electrification mechanisms are possibly present on Titan. There, dunes and plains of low-density organic particles blanket extensive regions of the surface. Unlike Earth, Titan hosts granular reservoirs whose physical and chemical properties possibly enhance the effects of charging on particle motion. Here we demonstrate in laboratory tumbler experiments under atmospheric conditions and using organic materials analogous to Titan that Titan sands can readily charge triboelectrically. We suggest that the resulting electrostatic forces are strong enough to promote aggregation of granular materials and affect sediment transport on Titan. Indeed, our experiments show that electrostatic forces may increase the saltation threshold for grains by up to an order of magnitude. Efficient electrification may explain puzzling observations on Titan such as the mismatch between dune orientations and inferred wind fields. We conclude that, unlike other Solar System bodies, nanometre-scale electrostatic processes may shape the geomorphological features of Titan across the moon’s surface.

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Acknowledgements

J.S.M.H. acknowledges funding from the NSF through an GRFP Fellowship. G.D.M. acknowledges funding from the DoD through an NDSEG Fellowship. Additional funding was provided by grant NSF EAR 1150794.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. School of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia 30332, USA

    • J. S. Méndez Harper
    • , G. D. McDonald
    • , J. Dufek
    • , J. McAdams
    •  & J. J. Wray
  2. School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia 30332, USA

    • J. S. Méndez Harper
  3. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California 91109, USA

    • M. J. Malaska
  4. Department of Earth and Planetary Science, University of Tennessee—Knoxville, Knoxville, Tennessee 37996, USA

    • D. M. Burr
  5. Department of Astronomy, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA

    • A. G. Hayes

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Contributions

J.S.M.H. designed experimental apparatus and measurement electronics, conducted experiments, and performed analysis. G.D.M. conducted experiments and helped with analysis. J.D. provided support with theoretical models of grain motion. M.J.M. provided support regarding material selection. D.M.B. provided support regarding aeolian dynamics on Titan. A.G.H. provided initial conceptualization of the project. J.M. provided laboratory support and conducted experiments. J.J.W. provided support regarding remote sensing.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. S. Méndez Harper.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2921

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