Clathration of Volatiles in the Solar Nebula and Implications for the Origin of Titan’s Atmosphere

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We describe a scenario of Titan's formation matching the constraints imposed by its current atmospheric composition. Assuming that the abundances of all elements, including oxygen, are solar in the outer nebula, we show that the icy planetesimals were agglomerated in the feeding zone of Saturn from a mixture of clathrates with multiple guest species, so-called stochiometric hydrates such as ammonia hydrate, and pure condensates. We also use a statistical thermodynamic approach to constrain the composition of multiple guest clathrates formed in the solar nebula. We then infer that krypton and xenon, that are expected to condense in the 20-30 K temperature range in the solar nebula, are trapped in clathrates at higher temperatures than 50 K. Once formed, these ices either were accreted by Saturn or remained embedded in its surrounding subnebula until they found their way into the regular satellites growing around Saturn. In order to explain the carbon monoxide and primordial argon deficiencies of Titan's atmosphere, we suggest that the satellite was formed from icy planetesimals initially produced in the solar nebula and that were partially devolatilized at a temperature not exceeding ~50 K during their migration within Saturn's subnebula. The observed deficiencies of Titan's atmosphere in krypton and xenon could result from other processes that may have occurred both prior to or after the completion of Titan. Thus, krypton and xenon may have been sequestrated in the form of XH+ 3 complexes in the solar nebula gas phase, causing the formation of noble gas-poor planetesimals ultimately accreted by Titan. Alternatively, krypton and xenon may have also been trapped efficiently in clathrates located on the satellite's surface or in its atmospheric haze. We finally discuss the subsequent observations that would allow us to determine which of these processes is the most likely.

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Astrophysical Journal, v. 691, issue 2, p. 1780-1786