Deformation characteristics of solid-state benzene as a step towards understanding planetary geology

Small organic molecules, like ethane and benzene, are ubiquitous in the atmosphere and surface of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, forming plains, dunes, canyons, and other surface features. Understanding Titan’s dynamic geology and designing future landing missions requires sufficient knowledge of the mechanical characteristics of these solid-state organic minerals, which is currently lacking. To understand the deformation and mechanical properties of a representative solid organic material at space-relevant temperatures, we freeze liquid micro-droplets of benzene to form ~10 μm-tall single-crystalline pyramids and uniaxially compress them in situ. These micromechanical experiments reveal contact pressures decaying from ~2 to ~0.5 GPa after ~1 μm-reduction in pyramid height. The deformation occurs via a series of stochastic (~5-30 nm) displacement bursts, corresponding to densification and stiffening of the compressed material during cyclic loading to progressively higher loads. Molecular dynamics simulations reveal predominantly plastic deformation and densified region formation by the re-orientation and interplanar shear of benzene rings, providing a two-step stiffening mechanism. This work demonstrates the feasibility of in-situ cryogenic nanomechanical characterization of solid organics as a pathway to gain insights into the geophysics of planetary bodies.