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Title: Tholin  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Centaur (minor planet), Life on Titan, Sudarsky's gas giant classification, Ketene, Astrochemistry
Collection: Astrochemistry, Organic Polymers, Origin of Life
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Tholins [after the methane or ethane. Tholins do not form naturally on modern-day Earth, but they are found in great abundance on the surface of icy bodies in the outer Solar System. They usually have a reddish-brown appearance.


  • Formation 1
  • Occurrence 2
  • Biological significance 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5


The formation of tholins in the atmosphere of Titan

The term "tholin" was coined by astronomer Carl Sagan and his colleague Bishun Khare to describe the difficult-to-characterize substances he obtained in his Miller-Urey-type experiments on the gas mixtures that are found in Titan's atmosphere.[1] Tholins are not one specific compound but rather are descriptive of a spectrum of molecules that give a reddish, organic surface covering on certain planetary surfaces.

As illustrated to the right, tholins are believed to form through a chain of chemical reactions. This begins with the

  1. ^  
  2. ^ Waite, J.H.; Young, D.T.; Cravens, T.E.; Coates, A.J.; Crary, F.J.; Magee, B.; Westlake, J. (2007). "The process of tholin formation in Titan's upper atmosphere". Science 316 (5826): 870–5.  
  3. ^ Abstract
  4. ^ McGuigan, M.A.; Waite, J.H.; Imanaka, H.; Sacks, R.D. (2006). "Analysis of Titan tholin pyrolysis products by comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography-time-of-flight mass spectrometry". J. Chromatography 1132 (1-2): 280–288.  
  5. ^ McDonald, G.D.; Whited, L.J.; DeRuiter, C.; Khare, B.N.; Patnaik, A.; Sagan, C. "Production and chemical analysis of cometary ice tholins". Icarus 122 (1): 107–117.  
  6. ^ "Pluto: The 'Other' Red Planet". NASA. 3 July 2015. Retrieved 6 July 2015. Experts have long thought that reddish substances are generated as a particular color of ultraviolet light from the sun, called Lyman-alpha, strikes molecules of the gas methane (CH4) in Pluto’s atmosphere, powering chemical reactions that create complex compounds called tholins. 
  7. ^ Albert, P.T. (9 September 2015). "New Horizons Probes the Mystery of Charon’s Red Pole".  
  8. ^ [2]
  9. ^ Kohler, M.; Mann, I.; Li, A. (2008). "Complex organic materials in the HR 4796A disk?" 686 (2). pp. L95–L98.  
  10. ^ Spaceflight Now | Breaking News | Red dust in disk may harbor precursors to life
  11. ^ Mass Spectrometry - Base Peak - The web's leading Mass Spectrometry Resource
  12. ^ Stoker, C.R.; Boston, P.J.; Mancinelli, R.L.; Segal, W.; Khare, B.N.; Sagan, C. (1990). "Microbial metabolism of tholin". Icarus 85 (1): 241–256.  


See also

A wide variety of soil autotrophy evolved.[12]

Tholins can act as an effective screen for ultraviolet radiation, protecting the planetary surface from it.[11]

Biological significance

Some researchers have speculated that Earth may have been seeded by organic compounds early in its development by tholin-rich comets, providing the raw material necessary for life to develop (see Miller-Urey experiment for discussion related to this issue). Tholins do not exist naturally on present-day Earth due to the oxidizing character of the free oxygen component of its atmosphere ever since the Great Oxygenation Event around 2.4 billion years ago.

Tholins may have also been detected in the stellar system of an eight-million-year-old star known as HR 4796A using the Near-Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) aboard the Hubble Space Telescope.[9] The HR 4796 system is approximately 220 light years from Earth.[10]

The surfaces of methane and trace amounts of other gases. In the case of Titan, the haze and orange-red color of its atmosphere is thought to be caused by the presence of tholins. It is believed that tholins also occur on the dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon and are responsible for their red colors[6][7] as well as the blue tint of Pluto's atmosphere[8].The plutino Ixion is also high in this substance.


[5] These atmospherically-derived substances are distinct from "ice tholin", which is formed instead by irradiation of

[4][3] Tholins formed at low pressure tend to contain nitrogen atoms in the interior of their molecules, while tholins formed at high pressure are more likely to have nitrogen atoms located in terminal positions.[2]

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