Large, schimanic compounds continue to pop up throughout the Solar System and new studies can help clarify the confusion about how they form in so many places.
This study is based on laboratory experiments inspired by the bizarre quirkiness scientists have observed about the scattered dune fields of the Saturn Titan Moon . These dunes are filled with compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which have ring-like structures. On Titan, dunes store a significant portion of the carbon moon. And since this moon is one of the most enticing careers of astrobiologists for potentially finding life beyond Earth, carbon matters.
"These dunes are quite large," researched senior author Ralph Kaiser, a chemist at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, told Space.com, nearly as tall as the Great Pyramid of Egypt, he added. "If you want to understand the carbon and hydrocarbon cycle and processes of Titanium hydrocarbons, it's really important to find out where the dominant carbon source comes from."
Related: Saturn Moon Titanium Can Have Phantom Lakes and Caves
There is one direct mechanism in Titan that scientists know is probably building polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: These large molecules can form in the dense atmosphere of the moon and precipitate to the surface. But the same family of compounds is found in many worlds that are not proud of such an atmosphere, such as the dwarf planets Pluto and Ceres and the Kuiper Belt object Makemake
Kaiser and his colleagues wanted to understand how polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons could occur in a world lacking the atmosphere to create them. And when the researchers looked at Titan, they saw an idea: Where the dunes are, there aren't many hydrocarbon shades that are otherwise quite common on this moon.
Researchers wondered if a second process, one conducted on the surface, could turn ice as acetylene into polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In particular, scientists believed that the culprit may be galactic cosmic rays energy particles that ricochet into space.
So the researchers created an experiment: Take some acetylene ice, expose it to a process that mimics the cosmic ray galaxy, and see what happens. They mimicked the effect of pumping these particles for hundreds of years, and then measured the amounts of different compounds formed.
Scientists have discovered several different flavors of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. This tells the team that the interaction between hydrocarbon ice and galactic cosmic rays can really explain the propagation of compounds even where no atmosphere can form them.
"It's a pretty versatile process that can happen anywhere," Kaiser said. This includes not only Titan, but other moons and asteroids, but even grains of interstellar dust and neighboring solar systems, he said.
Then he and his colleagues want to determine what specific process is causing the transformation, Kaiser said. It will be complicated, he said, because the ionizing radiation team used to simulate cosmic galactic rays involves many simultaneous processes.
The line of research is an intriguing aesthetic as well as scientific, Michael Malasca, who studies planetary ice at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and who has not participated in current research, told Space.com in an email. "Their work further supports that some of Titan's sand can shine beautiful colors under UV light," he writes.
The study is described in a article published yesterday (October 1
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a comment by Michael Malaska. Email Meghan Bartels at email@example.com or follow her @meghanbartels . Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook .