Origin and Evolution of Outer Solar System Atmospheres

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Science  14 Jul 1989:
Vol. 245, Issue 4914, pp. 141-147
DOI: 10.1126/science.245.4914.141


The atmospheres of bodies in the outer solar system are distinct in composition from those of the inner planets and provide a complementary set of clues to the origin of the solar system. This article reviews current understanding of the origin and evolution of these atmospheres on the basis of abundances of key molecular species. The systematic enrichment of methane and deuterated species from Jupiter to Neptune is consistent with formation models in which significant infall of icy and rocky planetesimals accompanies the formation of giant planets. The atmosphere of the Saturnian satellite Titan has been strongly modified by photochemistry and interaction with the surface over 4.5 billion years; the combined knowledge of this moon's bulk density and estimates of the composition of the surface and atmosphere provide some constraints on this body's formation. Neptune's satellite Triton is a poorly known object for which it is hoped that substantial information will be gleaned from the Voyager 2 encounter in August 1989. The mean density of the Pluto-Charon system is well known and suggests an origin in the rather water-poor solar nebula. The recent occultation of a star by Pluto provides evidence that carbon monoxide, in addition to methane, may be present in its atmosphere.