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Méndez's specialty is electrified particles. He investigates phenomena such as volcanic lightning, which is powered by electrically charged volcanic ash particles, and studies "powders in the pharmaceutical industry, which can clump together or stick to the walls of pipes because of their electric charge," he said.
"It turns out that sand grains on Titan are not so different from pharmaceutical particles," Méndez told Space.com. "So I wanted to see how such particles might act on Titan."
Sand grains and other particles can build up electric charge through the "triboelectric effect," the same effect behind everyday static electricity. When two different materials repeatedly collide with or rub against one another, the surface of one material can steal electrons from the surface of the other, accumulating charge.
The strength of Earth's gravitational pull typically overwhelms any effect that triboelectricity might have on shaping the planet's dunes, Méndez said. However, Titan's surface gravity is more than seven times weaker than Earth's, meaning that triboelectricity might play a more conspicuous role on that moon, he said. In addition, while sand grains on Earth are often made of silicate minerals, the organic sand grains of Titan are typically fluffier, and this lighter nature could make them easier to push around, Méndez said.