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Credit: Image: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Oct 16, 2007

Titan's Strange Atmosphere

Titan's atmosphere has scientists puzzled. Unlike all other large moons, it has an atmosphere. And that atmosphere is the densest of any terrestrial planet after Venus. It's also far more extensive than Venus's, stretching out to about 880 km. The haze layers seen in the image above reach a height of 400 km above Titan.

The plethora of puzzles evokes contrary guesses at answers from scientists. Toby Owens, principal scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, surmised: "What we've got is a very primitive atmosphere that has been preserved for 4.6 billion years. Titan gives us the chance for cosmic time travel . . . going back to the very earliest days of Earth when it had a similar atmosphere."

The New Scientist, in its November 6, 2004 issue, supposed: “Titan appears to have lost much of its original atmosphere. The moon has an unusually high abundance of nitrogen-15, compared with the lighter isotope nitrogen-14. That could be explained if most of the atmosphere had evaporated into space, a process in which the nitrogen-14 would have escaped more easily than nitrogen-15. What could cause such a loss is unknown, but it would mean that Titan once had an atmosphere 40 times as thick as Earth's - making it a dwarf version of a gas planet."

An earlier conjecture expected to find oceans of methane thought necessary to replace its continual loss from the upper atmosphere over the presumed age of Titan – more than 4 billion years.

The Electric Universe views the puzzles of Titan's atmosphere as evidence of its youth. There is no need for a methane ocean if the moon is young. Because moons are born episodically in "electrical parturition" events, they will not be all the same age nor have the same composition. The striking disparity in nitrogen isotopes tells us more about the way planetary atmospheres are formed than how they evolve in isolation. Several processes in the plasma discharge model of planet birth will have significant effects on their atmospheres. The primary variation in composition comes from the source and depth of the ejection from the parent planet. In addition, the plasma gun effect (seen now ejecting material from Io into space) is known from laboratory tests to be a copious source of neutrons. The neutrons may be captured and change isotopic ratios or generate radioactive species and in that process transmute elements in the ejected material.

Also, the strong electric field in an ejection event can accelerate charged particles and transmute elements. For example, nitrogen-14 can capture an electron to become carbon-14. Carbon-14 decays by very weak beta decay back to nitrogen-14, with a half-life of approximately 5,730 years. If the age of Titan’s atmosphere can be measured in thousands of years instead of billions, then a significant amount of nitrogen-14 may still be locked up on Titan as carbon-14.

Another little-known process is the catalytic nuclear conversion of nitrogen to carbon monoxide. The intrinsic mass/energy difference between the nitrogen molecule and the carbon monoxide molecule is quite small. Nitrogen-14 molecules, in a hot plasma and in the presence of a catalyst such as iron, have been demonstrated to convert to carbon monoxide molecules. Both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide have been discovered in Titan’s atmosphere.

Furthermore, several mechanisms in plasma discharges sort material into regions of like isotopes, elements, or compounds. A moon that forms from only part of the ejected material may have a composition quite different from the remainder of the material.

A new moon ejected into a system of pre-existing moons will likely disrupt that system. Close passages to other moons will result in electrical interactions as the entire system adjusts to reach "least interaction" orbits. These further interactions will exchange and transmute material on all the moons involved, electrically scarring their surfaces in the process.

A final puzzle was reported by Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society: “One thing that may have helped the probe last a long time was that it appeared to stay unexpectedly warm. At an elevation of only 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) above the surface, her interior was still at a balmy 25 C (77 F), despite the outside temperature being a frigid -180 C (-290 F). [Project scientist Jean-Pierre] Lebreton wasn't ready to say what this might mean. It could be over-performance of the spacecraft, but it could also mean a wide variety of unexpected things about the atmosphere.”

If Titan, like Venus, is a young, recently ejected body, it may still be cooling from its "natal heat."

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David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Steve Smith, Mel Acheson
  CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
Ev Cochrane, C.J. Ransom, Don Scott, Rens van der Sluijs, Ian Tresman
  WEBMASTER: Brian Talbott

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