The absence of endogenic methane on Titan and its implications for the origin of atmospheric nitrogen

Christopher R. Glein, Steven Desch, Everett Shock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


We calculate the D/H ratio of CH4 from serpentinization on Titan to determine whether Titan's atmospheric CH4 was originally produced inside the giant satellite. This is done by performing equilibrium isotopic fractionation calculations in the CH4-H2O-H2 system, with the assumption that the bulk D/H ratio of the system is equivalent to that of the H2O in the plume of Enceladus. These calculations show that the D/H ratio of hydrothermally produced CH4 would be markedly higher than that of atmospheric CH4 on Titan. The implication is that Titan's CH4 is a primordial chemical species that was accreted by the moon during its formation. There are two evolutionary scenarios that are consistent with the apparent absence of endogenic CH4 in Titan's atmosphere. The first is that hydrothermal systems capable of making CH4 never existed on Titan because Titan's interior has always been too cold. The second is that hydrothermal systems on Titan were sufficiently oxidized so that C existed in them predominately in the form of CO2. The latter scenario naturally predicts the formation of endogenic N2, providing a new hypothesis for the origin of Titan's atmospheric N2: the hydrothermal oxidation of 15N-enriched NH3. A primordial origin for CH4 and an endogenic origin for N2 are self-consistent, but both hypotheses need to be tested further by acquiring isotopic data, especially the D/H ratio of CH4 in comets, and the 15N/14N ratio of NH3 in comets and that of N2 in one of Enceladus' plumes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)637-644
Number of pages8
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 2009


  • Atmospheres, evolution
  • Cosmochemistry
  • Satellites, atmospheres
  • Saturn, satellites
  • Titan

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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