Kendra Farnsworth and her colleagues found during a set of experiments designed to help the team understand how compounds like those found on the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, interact. ” stumbled across bubbles: At the beginning, it wasn’t the main goal of the study but it was one of those really surprising results,” Farnsworth, a doctoral student in planetary science at the University of Arkansas and the lead author of a new paper describing the research, told Space.com. “Bubbles had been predicted on Titan, but nobody had actually seen them or created them in a laboratory at that time.”
In the experiment where the bubbles first appeared, Farnsworth had set out to measure how much nitrogen gas would dissolve in different mixtures of liquid methane and ethane, the organic compounds that make up Titan’s strangely Earth-like system of rainfall, lakes and seas. As she warmed up these ponds from their chilliest point, colder than Titan’s modern surface temperatures, Farnsworth noticed small bubbles would snake to the surface. “At some point, the bubbles exploded and came up and hit my camera; I couldn’t see anything out of my camera,” Farnsworth said. “I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, I wasn’t expecting this.'” Suddenly, the titrations themselves weren’t as interesting as the bubbles phenomenon, with all its strangeness. She and her colleagues kept experimenting with the moon solutions to try to understand the conditions that made for bubbles.
“There’s nothing and they explode,” Farnsworth said. “They’re more violent than we ever expected them to be.”
Because of the combination of changes required, Farnsworth expects that these outbursts occur only at very specific places on Titan’s surface, perhaps in underground reservoirs or where a river meets a lake.
“It could just very well be perfectly calm and then sometimes you just have an explosion of bubbles,” she said. “It’d be kind of fun.”