Washington: A new study has revealed that dune particles on Saturn's moon Titan move only under winds that blow stronger than scientists previously thought.
Experiments from the high-pressure wind tunnel at ASU's Planetary Aeolian Laboratory found that previous estimates of how fast winds need to blow to move sand-size particles around on Titan are about 40 percent too low.
Dunes begin to form when the wind picks up loose particles from the ground and drives them to hop, or saltate, downwind. A key part of understanding dunes is to identify the threshold wind speed that causes dune particles to start to move. Geologists have found threshold speeds for sand and dust under various conditions on Earth, Mars and Venus. But for Titan, with its bizarre conditions, this remained unknown.
On Titan, where the surface temperature is negative 290 degrees Fahrenheit, even "sand" is probably unlike sand on Earth, Mars or Venus. From the Cassini observations and other data, scientists think it is composed of small particles of solid hydrocarbons (or ice wrapped in hydrocarbons), with a density about one-third that of terrestrial sand. In addition, Titan's gravity is low, roughly one-seventh that on Earth. Combined with the particles' low density, this gives them a weight of only about four percent that of terrestrial sand, or roughly as light as freeze-dried coffee grains.
The outcome of the wind tunnel experiments show that the previous calculations for wind speeds necessary to lift particles were about 40 to 50 percent too slow. The new experiments show that near the surface of Titan, the most easily moved sand-size particles need winds of at least 3.2 miles per hour (1.4 meters per second) to start moving.
A higher threshold wind speed for making particles move creates an either/or situation in which weak, everyday winds do little or nothing to surface particles, but occasional strong ones readily blow them around and reshape the dunes. The pattern of dunes on Titan shows that despite prevailing winds blowing from the east, the dunes appear shaped by winds from the west, which occur more rarely. Thus, the new work indicates that Titan's dunes are seldom stirred into motion - only whenever conditions produce strong westerly winds .
The study was published in the journal Nature.