Research ArticlePLANETARY SCIENCE

Low-temperature synthesis of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in Titan’s surface ices and on airless bodies

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Science Advances  16 Oct 2019:
Vol. 5, no. 10, eaaw5841
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw5841

Abstract

Titan’s equatorial dunes represent the most monumental surface structures in our Solar System, but the chemical composition of their dark organics remains a fundamental, unsolved enigma, with solid acetylene detected near the dunes implicated as a key feedstock. Here, we reveal in laboratory simulation experiments that aromatics such as benzene, naphthalene, and phenanthrene—prospective building blocks of the organic dune material—can be efficiently synthesized via galactic cosmic ray exposure of low-temperature acetylene ices on Titan’s surface, hence challenging conventional wisdom that aromatic hydrocarbons are formed solely in Titan’s atmosphere. These processes are also of critical importance in unraveling the origin and chemical composition of the dark surfaces of airless bodies in the outer Solar System, where hydrocarbon precipitation from the atmosphere cannot occur. This finding notably advances our understanding of the distribution of carbon throughout our Solar System such as on Kuiper belt objects like Makemake.

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