Saturn is spectacular for much more than just its majestic rings. It has many moons surrounding it, and many scientists found Saturn’s moon Titan to be particularly interesting. Titan hosts frozen lakeshores which could be encrusted with alien crystals — minerals that haven’t been previously found on Earth.
To test this, scientists recreated Titan-like conditions in their lab and found the presence of new chemical compounds and minerals that haven’t been seen before on Earth. There was also a co-crystal made out of solid acetylene and butane. Both materials are commonly found on Earth and used mainly for storing fuel for stoves and welding. However, on Saturn’s moon Titan, these two materials combine into crystals as a result of the extremely cold temperature.
The mineral that came out of that reaction could impact the creation of so-called “bathtub rings” which are believed to exist near Titan’s hydrocarbon lakes, according to Morgan Cable at NASA”s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Cable presented their research at the 2019 Astrobiology Science Conference.
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“We have discovered a third molecular mineral that is stable in the same conditions present on the surface of Titan, a moon of Saturn. This molecular mineral is made up of acetylene and butane, two organic molecules that are produced in Titan’s atmosphere and fall down onto the surface,” the team wrote in the abstract of their study.
To create the conditions found on Titan to study the alien crystals on it, the researchers created a custom-built cryostat, which is a apparatus that can keep material cold. The cryostat was then filled with liquid nitrogen, which greatly reduced the temperature. After that, the team warmed up the chamber just a little so that the nitrogen would become a gas again. Nitrogen is the main component in Titan’s atmosphere. After that, they threw in material which are abundant on Titan, including methane, ethane and other carbon-containing materials, to see what would happen.
The first things that appeared in the combined substances were benzene crystals. While benzene is greatly known as a component of gasoline made of a hexagonal ring of carbon atoms, it was fairly surprising to see it appear in the Titan-like model. The molecules arranged themselves in a way that would allow ethane molecules in the structure, creating a co-crystal.
After that, the team found an acetylene and butane co-crystal which is more commonly found on Titan than benzene crystals, based on the moon’s composition. In an ultra-cold environment, such as on Saturn’s moon Titan, these co-crystals may create rings around the moon lakes as liquid hydrocarbons evaporate, and the minerals are released.
Until they can confirm that that these processes actually occur on Titan, scientists will have to wait and work on building a spacecraft that can visit the moon, according to Cable. Last year it was reported that NASA was working on a submarine which could submerge in Titan’s methane lakes.
“We don’t know yet if we have these bathtub rings,” Cable said in a statement. “It’s hard to see through Titan’s hazy atmosphere.”