Volume 54, Issue 12, October 2006, Pages 1177–1187
Surfaces and Atmospheres of the Outer Planets, their Satellites and Ring Systems from Cassini-Huygens Data
European Geosciences Union General Assembly – Sessions PS1.5, PS3.02 and PS3.03
See Huygens Decent on Titan
Methane is key to sustaining Titan’s thick nitrogen atmosphere. However, methane is destroyed and converted to heavier hydrocarbons irreversibly on a relatively short timescale of approximately 10–100 million years. Without the warming provided by CH4-generated hydrocarbon hazes in the stratosphere and the pressure induced opacity in the infrared, particularly by CH4–N2 and H2–N2 collisions in the troposphere, the atmosphere could be gradually reduced to as low as tens of millibar pressure. An understanding of the source–sink cycle of methane is thus crucial to the evolutionary history of Titan and its atmosphere. In this paper we propose that a complex photochemical–meteorological–hydrogeochemical cycle of methane operates on Titan. We further suggest that although photochemistry leads to the loss of methane from the atmosphere, conversion to a global ocean of ethane is unlikely. The behavior of methane in the troposphere and the surface, as measured by the Cassini–Huygens gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, together with evidence of cryovolcanism reported by the Cassini visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, represents a “methalogical” cycle on Titan, somewhat akin to the hydrological cycle on Earth. In the absence of net loss to the interior, it would represent a closed cycle. However, a source is still needed to replenish the methane lost to photolysis. A hydrogeochemical source deep in the interior of Titan holds promise. It is well known that in serpentinization, hydration of ultramafic silicates in terrestrial oceans produces H2(aq), whose reaction with carbon grains or carbon dioxide in the crustal pores produces methane gas. Appropriate geological, thermal, and pressure conditions could have existed in and below Titan’s purported water-ammonia ocean for “low-temperature” serpentinization to occur in Titan’s accretionary heating phase. On the other hand, impacts could trigger the process at high temperatures. In either instance, storage of methane as a stable clathrate–hydrate in Titan’s interior for later release to the atmosphere is quite plausible. There is also some likelihood that the production of methane on Titan by serpentinization is a gradual and continuous on-going process.