National Aeronautics and Space Administration Logo
Follow this link to skip to the main content NASA Banner
Solar System Exploration
Science & Technology
The Origin of Titan's Methane
Color image of ethane lake on Titan's orange-hued surface.
Titan's Ethane Lake. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL)

The origin of the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, has been an enduring mystery for decades. NAI scientists from the ASU team think they may finally have an answer. They tested the recently popular hypothesis that methane in Titan's atmosphere originated in hydrothermal systems deep within Titan. Their work was made possible by chemical data that were acquired when NASA's Cassini spacecraft passed through a plume of water and other compounds from Enceladus.

Using a geochemical model, the team deduced that Titan's atmospheric methane has much less deuterium than would be expected if the methane were produced in a hydrothermal system. The implication is that Titan's methane is a primordial chemical species that was accreted by the moon during its formation.

While Titan's methane probably came from accreted ices, the analysis of the ASU team suggests that the other major constituent of Titan's atmosphere, molecular nitrogen, could have come from within Titan's core. This work advances the understanding of the origin and evolution of the bioessential elements carbon and nitrogen on icy worlds in planetary systems. More information can be found in the December 2009 issue of Icarus.

Last Updated: 24 January 2011

Science Features
Astronomy Features
Technology Assessment Reports
Sungrazing Comets


Best of NASA Science
NASA Science Highlights
Technology Features
Lectures & Discussions

Awards and Recognition   Solar System Exploration Roadmap   Contact Us   Site Map   Print This Page
NASA Official: Kristen Erickson
Advisory: Dr. James Green, Director of Planetary Science
Outreach Manager: Alice Wessen
Curator/Editor: Phil Davis
Science Writers: Courtney O'Connor and Bill Dunford
Producer: Greg Baerg
Webmaster: David Martin
> NASA Science Mission Directorate
> Budgets, Strategic Plans and Accountability Reports
> Equal Employment Opportunity Data
   Posted Pursuant to the No Fear Act
> Information-Dissemination Policies and Inventories
> Freedom of Information Act
> Privacy Policy & Important Notices
> Inspector General Hotline
> Office of the Inspector General
> NASA Communications Policy
> NASA Advisory Council
> Open Government at NASA
Last Updated: 24 Jan 2011