Titan's gigantic methane lakes could be encrusted with crystals

It's like something from science fiction, but Titan's lakes could be surrounded with crystals.

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Mark Serrels
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Saturn's moon Titan.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Titan is the most famous of the moons orbiting Saturn, mainly because it's a) extremely large (the second biggest satellite in our solar system) and b) thought to be a potential spot for extra-terrestrial life within our own solar system.

And one of the most fascinating parts of Titan is its lakes.

Titan is thought to feature hydrocarbon lakes on its surface, near its polar regions. These aren't lakes like you might see on Earth, these are bodies of ethane and methane, molecules that only exist as liquid due to the temperature of Titan -- thought to be around 90 Kelvin (around -297 Fahrenheit).

The lakes of Titan have long thought to be surrounded by what some call "bathtub rings". Now scientists are suggesting these bathtub rings could actually be crystals.

This possibility comes from researchers creating Titan-like conditions within the lab. Using a custom-built cryostat combined with liquid nitrogen, researchers were able to induce the insanely low temperatures required to recreate conditions on Titan's surface. With the extreme cold, researchers found that an "acetylene-butane co-crystal" was formed in bodies of methane and ethane similar to those thought to exist on Titan. The team believes this crystal could explain the bathtub rings thought to be seen around the lakes on Titan.

Crystal-encrusted lakes of methane: it seems like a science-fiction author's dream, or something straight from Interstellar, but according to the research it is a possibility -- but only a possibility.

Until we actually land close to the shores of Titan's mysterious lakes, we can't know for sure if these bathtub rings actually exist. 

Morgan Cable of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, is presenting this research at the 2019 Astrobiology Science Conference.

"We don't know yet if we have these bathtub rings," he said. "It's hard to see through Titan's hazy atmosphere."

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