Scientists are enthralled and baffled by Saturn’s biggest moon, Titan. Titan and Earth are the only bodies in our solar system that have large amounts of liquid on their surface, and Titan is the only moon with a substantial atmosphere. That atmosphere is a point of interest. How is it possible? Well, there’s a new theory about what lies beneath.  

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A group of researchers at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado tackled the issue of Titan’s atmosphere. Scientists have known that there are complex molecules on Titan, including organic material (meaning carbon is involved). But according to Kelly Miller, lead author of the new study, “The main theory has been that ammonia ice from comets was converted, by impacts or photochemistry, into nitrogen to form Titan’s atmosphere. While that may still be an important process, it neglects the effects of what we now know is a very substantial portion of comets: complex organic material.” So, Miller’s team started looking at comet data.  

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The team looked to information collected from the Rosetta spacecraft about comet 67P. It concluded that the comet’s composition was half ice, a quarter rock and a quarter organic material. Comets, and many objects in the outer solar system, are thought to be left over from when the solar system was built. So, this comet could have a very similar composition to that of Titan. And, if Titan’s core was made of these rocky, organic compounds then that could be a direct connection to atmosphere.  

According to space.com, “thermal models of the moon’s interior suggest a toasty environment that could replenish or even generate much of Titan’s atmosphere.” And, as Miller said in a statement, “If you cook something, it will produce gases,” Boom. Thus, a home-cooked, made to order, nice thick nitrogen-rich atmosphere.  

Miller and her team detailed their work in the January 22, The Astrophysical Journal.

 

 

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Jenny Flack

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