A radar image obtained by Cassini during a near-polar flyby on February 22, 2007, showing a big island in the middle of Kraken Mare on Saturn's moon Titan. Caption and credit: NASA

Why Titan is awesome #11


Here we go again. 😄 As has been reported, NASA has been interested in sending a robotic submarine to Saturn’s moon Titan to explore the hydrocarbon lakes near its north pole. Various dates have been mentioned and in all it seems likely the mission will be able to take off around 2040. In the 22 years we have left, we’ve got to build the submarine and make sure it can run autonomously on Titan, where the sea-surface temperature is about 95 K, whose waterbodies liquid-hydrocarbon-bodies are made of methane, ethane and nitrogen, and with density variations of up to 30%.

So researchers at Washington State University (WSU) tried to recreate the conditions of benthic Titan – specifically as they would be inside Kraken and Ligeia Mare – by working with the values of four variables: pressure, temperature, density and composition. Their apparatus consisted of a small, cylindrical cartridge heater submerged inside a cell containing methane, ethane and nitrogen, with controls to measure the values of the variables as well as modify conditions if needed. The scientists took a dozen readings as they varied the concentration of methane, ethane and nitrogen, the pressure, sea temperature, the heater surface temperature and the heat flux at bubble incipience.

The experimental setup used by WSU researchers to recreate the conditions inside one of Titan's liquid-hydrocarbon lakes. Source: WSU/NASA
The experimental setup used by WSU researchers to recreate the conditions inside one of Titan’s liquid-hydrocarbon lakes. Source: WSU/NASA
The data logged by WSU researchers pertaining to the conditions inside one of Titan's liquid-hydrocarbon lakes. Source: WSU/NASA
The data logged by WSU researchers pertaining to the conditions inside one of Titan’s liquid-hydrocarbon lakes. Source: Hartwig and Leachman, 2017/WSU

Based on them, they were able to conclude:

  • The moon’s lakes don’t freeze over even though their surface temperature is proximate to the freezing temperature of methane and ethane because of the dissolved nitrogen. The gas lowers the mixture’s freezing point (by about 16 K below the triple point), thus preventing the formation of icebergs that the robotic submarine would then have had to be designed to avoid (there’s a Titanic joke in here somewhere).
  • However, more nitrogen isn’t necessarily a good thing. It dissolves better in its liquid-hydrocarbon surroundings as the pressure increases and the temperature decreases – both of which will happen at lower depths. And the more nitrogen there is, the more the liquids surrounding the submarine are going to effervesce (i.e. release gas).

What issues would this pose to the vehicle? According to a conference paper authored among others by Jason Hartwig, a member of the WSU team, and presented earlier this year,

Effervescence of nitrogen gas may cause issues in two operational scenarios for any submersible on Titan. In the quiescent case, bubbles that form may interfere with sensitive science measurements, such as composition measurements, in acoustic transmission for depth sounding, and sidescan sonar imaging. In the moving case, bubbles that form along the submarine may coalesce at the aft end of the craft and cause cavitation in the propellers, impacting propulsive performance.

  • The quantity of effervescence and the number of sites on the submarine’s surface along which bubbles formed was observed to increase the warmer the machine’s outer surface got.
The planned design of the submarine NASA plans to use to explore Titan's cold hydrocarbon lakes. Source: Hartwig and Leachman, 2017/WSU
The planned design of the submarine NASA plans to use to explore Titan’s cold hydrocarbon lakes. Source: Hartwig and Leachman, 2017/WSU

If NASA engineers get all these details right, then their submarine will work. But making sure the instruments onboard will be able to make the observations they’ll need to make and the log the data they’ll need to log presents its own challenges. When one of the members of the WSU team decided to look into the experimental cell using a borescope (which is what an endoscope is called outside a hospital) and a video recorder, this is what he got:


Oh, Titan.

(Obligatory crib: the university press release‘s headline goes ‘WSU researchers build -300ÂșF alien ocean to test NASA outer space submarine’. But in the diagram of the apparatus above, note that the cartridge heater standing in for the submarine is 5 cm long. So the researchers haven’t built an alien ocean; they’ve simply reconstructed a few thimblefuls.)

  1. Why Titan is awesome #1
  2. Why Titan is awesome #2
  3. Why Titan is awesome #3
  4. Why Titan is awesome #4
  5. Why Titan is awesome #5
  6. Why Titan is awesome #6
  7. Why Titan is awesome #7
  8. Why Titan is awesome #8
  9. Why Titan is awesome #9
  10. Why Titan is awesome #10

Featured image: A radar image obtained by Cassini during a near-polar flyby on February 22, 2007, showing a big island in the middle of Kraken Mare on Saturn’s moon Titan. Caption and credit: NASA.

Note: This post was republished from late February 15 to the morning of February 16 because it was published too late in the night and received little traffic.

Titan's lakes might be fizzing with nitrogen bubbles

Featured image: A shot by Cassini of the lakes Kraken Mare and Ligeia Mare near Titan’s north pole. Credit: NASA.


One more study reporting cool things about my favourite moon this week. Researchers from Mexico and France have found that the conditions exist in which the lakes of nitrogen, ethane and methane around Titan’s poles could be fizzy with nitrogen bubbles. In technical terms, that’s nitrogen exsolution: when one component of a solution of multiple substances separates out. In this case, the nitrogen forms bubbles and floats to the surface of the lakes, becoming spottable by the Cassini probe. The results were published in the journal Nature Astronomy on April 18.

The Cassini probe has been studying Saturn and its moons since 2004. In 2013, its RADAR instrument – which makes observations using radio-waves – found small, bright features on some of Titan’s lakes that winked out over time. These features have been whimsically called ‘magic islands’ and there has been speculation that they could be bubbles. The Mexican-French study provides one scientific form for this speculation.

The researchers used a numerical model to determine how and why the nitrogen could be degassing out of the lakes. Specifically, they extracted estimates of the temperature and pressure on the surface and interiors of the Ligeia Mare lake from past studies and then plugged them into simulations used to predict the properties of Earth’s oil and gas fields. They found that the bubbles could form if the solution of methane, ethane and nitrogen was forced to split up at certain temperatures and pressures. So, the researchers had to figure out the simplest way in which this could happen and then the likelihood of finding it happening in a Titanic lake.

When the lake’s innards are not forced to split up, they’re thought to exist in a liquid-liquid-vapour equilibrium (LLVE). In an LLVE, two liquids and a vapour can coexist without shifting phases (i.e. from liquid to vapour, vapour to liquid, etc.). The researchers write in their paper, “In the laboratory, LLVEs have been observed under cryogenic conditions for systems comparable to Titan’s liquid phases: nitrogen + methane + (ethane, propane or n-butane).” While cryogenic conditions may be hard to create on Earth’s surface, they’re the natural state of affairs on Titan because the latter is so far from the Sun. The surfaces of its lakes are thought to be at 80-90 K (-190Âș to -180Âș C), with the lower reaches being a few degrees colder.

For an LLVE-like condition to be disrupted, the researchers figured the lake itself couldn’t be homogenous. The reasons: “A sea with a homogeneous composition that matches that required for the occurrence of an LLVE at a specific depth is an improbable scenario. In addition, such a case would imply nitrogen degassing through the whole extent of the system.” So in a simple workaround, they suggested that the lake’s upper layers could be rich in methane and the lower layers, in ethane. This way, there’s more nitrogen available near the surface because the gas dissolves better in methane – and also because it could be dissolving into the top more from the moon’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere.

Over time, the lake’s top layers could be forced to move downward by weather conditions prevailing above the lake, and push the material at the bottom to the top. But during the downward journey, the rising pressure breaks the LLVE and forces the nitrogen to split off as bubbles. Given the size and depth of Ligeia Mare, the researchers have estimated that nitrogen exsolution can occur at depths of 100-200 m. The bubbles that rise to the top can be a few centimetres wide – not too small for Cassini’s RADAR instrument to spot them, as well as in keeping with what previous studies have recorded.

Of course, this isn’t the only way nitrogen bubbles could be forming on Ligeia Mare. According to another study published in March, when an ultra-cold slush of ethane settling at the bottom of the lake freezes, its crystals release the nitrogen trapped between their atoms. Michael Malaska, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, California, had said at the time:

In effect, it’s as though the lakes of Titan breathe nitrogen. As they cool, they can absorb more of the gas, ‘inhaling’. And as they warm, the liquid’s capacity is reduced, so they ‘exhale’.

The Mexican-French researchers are careful to note that their analysis can’t say anything about the quantities of nitrogen involved or how exactly it might be moving around Ligeia Mare – but only that it pinpoints the conditions in which the bubbles might be able to form. NASA has been tentative about sending a submarine to plumb the depths of another Titanic lake, Kraken Mare, in the 2040s. If it does undertake the mission, it could speak the final word on the ‘magic islands’. Ironically, however, NASA scientists will have to design the sub keeping in mind the formation of LLVEs and nitrogen exsolution.

But won’t the issue be settled by then? Maybe, maybe not. Come April 22, Cassini will fly by Titan’s surface at a distance of 980 km, at 21,000 km/hr. It will be the probe’s last close encounter with the moon, as mission scientists have planned to take a look at some of the smaller lakes. After this, the probe will fly a path that will take it successively through Saturn’s inner rings. Finally, on September 15, NASA will perform the probe’s ‘Grand Finale’ manoeuvre, sending it plunging into Saturn’s gassy atmosphere and unto its death, bringing the curtains down on a glorious 13-year mission that has changed the way we think about the ringed planet and its neighbourhood.

Published in The Wire on April 20, 2017.


Titan's chemical orgies

Titan probably smells weird. It looks like a ball of dirt. It has ponds and streams of liquid ethane and methane and lakes of the two ethanes, with nitrogen bubbling up in large patches, near its poles. It has clouds of hydrocarbons raining down more methane. And like the water cycle on Earth, Titan has a methane cycle. Its atmosphere is a stifling billow of (mostly) nitrogen. Its surface temperature often dips below -180Âș C, and the Sun is as bright in its sky as our moon is in ours. In all, Titan is a dank orgy of organic chemistries playing out at the size of a small planet. And it smells weird – like gasoline. All the time.

But it is also beautiful. Titan is the only other object in the Solar System known to have bodies of liquid something flowing on its surface. It has a thick atmosphere and seasons. Its methane cycle signifies a mature and stable resource recycling system, just the way a functional household allows you to have routines. Yes, it’s cold and apparently desolate, but Titan can’t help these things. Water would freeze on its surface but the Saturnian moon has made do with what wouldn’t, and it has a singularly fascinating surface chemistry to show for it. Titan has been one of the more unique moons ever found.

And new observations and studies of the moon only make it more unique. This week, scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology reported Titan possibly has dunes of tar that, once formed, stay in formation because their ionised particles cling together. The scientists stuck naphthalene and biphenyl – two organic compounds thought to exist on Titan’s surface – into a tumbler, tumbled it around for about 20 minutes in a nitrogen chamber and then emptied it. According to a Georgia Tech press release, 2-5% of the mixture lumped up.

The idea of tarry sands is not new. The Cassini probe studying the Saturn system found strange, parallel dunes near Titan’s equator in 2006, over a hundred metres tall. Soon after, scientists were thinking about ‘sediment cohesiveness’, the tendency of certain particles to stick together because of weak but persistent static charges, to explain the dunes. These charges are much weaker among sand particles and volcanic ash on Earth. Then again, in a 2009 paper in Nature Geoscience – the same journal the Georgia Tech study was published in – planetary geologists showed that longitudinal dunes, as they were called, were known to form in the Qaidam Basin in China. A note accompanying the paper explained:

More recent models for linear dune formation are centred on two main scenarios for formation and perpetuation. Winds from two alternating directions, separated by a wide angle, result in the formation of dunes whose long axis falls somewhere between the two wind directions. Alternatively, winds blowing from a single direction along a dune surface that has been stabilized in some way, for example by vegetation, an obstacle or sediment cohesiveness, can produce the same dune form.

That the Georgia Tech study affirmed the latter possibility doesn’t mean the former has been ruled out. Scientists have shown that bi-directional winds are possible on Titan, where wind blows in one direction over a desert and then shifts by 120Âș and blows over the same patch, forming a longitudinal dune. One of the Georgia Tech study’s novelties is in finding a way for the dune’s particles to stick together. Previous studies couldn’t confirm this was possible because the dunes mostly occur near Titan’s equator, where the weather is relatively much drier than at the poles, where mud-like clumps can form and hold their shape.

The other novelty is in using their naphthalene-biphenyl model to explain why the longitudinal dunes are also facing away from the wind. As one of the study’s authors told New Scientist, “The winds are moving one way and the sediments are moving the other way.” This is because the longitudinal dunes accrue on existing dunes and elongate themselves backwards. And once they do form, more naphthalene and biphenyl grains stick on them thanks to the static produced by them rubbing against each other. Only storms can budge them then.

The Georgia Tech group also writes in its paper that infrared and microwave observations suggest the dune’s constituent particles don’t become available through the erosion of nearby features. Instead, the particles become available out of Titan’s atmosphere, in the form of ‘haze particles’. They write: “[Frictional] charging provides an efficient process for the aggregation of simple aromatic hydrocarbons, and may serve as a mechanism for the formation of dune grains with diameters of several hundred micrometers from micrometer-sized haze particles.”

A big-picture implication is that Titan’s surface features are shaped by agents that are almost powerless on Earth. In other words, Titan doesn’t just smell weird; it’s also sticky. Despite the moon’s being similar to Earth in many ways, there are still drastic differences arising from small mismatches, mismatches we’d think wouldn’t make a difference. They remind us of the conditions we take for granted at home that are friendly to life – and of the conditions in which we can still dream of the possibility of life. Again, studies (described here and here) have shown this is possible. One has even warned us that Titanic lifeforms, if they exist, would smell nowhere as good as their name at all.

Understanding the dunes is a way to understand Titan’s winds. This is important because future missions to the moon envisage wind-blown balloons and cruising gliders.

Featured image: Saturn in the background of Titan, its largest moon. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I’d written this post originally for Gaplogs but it got published in The Wire first.