Titan, which is smaller than Mars, has an atmosphere but Mars is not able to maintain its atmosphere. Even Luna (the Moon) doesn't have an atmosphere. Why is Titan able to hold an atmosphere, despite being smaller than Mars?

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    $\begingroup$ Old question, but I don't see it mentioned below. Titan's atmosphere may be replenished by out-gassing from it's icy surface, crust and perhaps, methane lakes. That may partially explain Venus' atmosphere as well, though with Venus, the process is very different. nature.com/nature/journal/v440/n7080/abs/nature04497.html $\endgroup$
    – userLTK
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 1:17

6 Answers 6


You are right that it's surprising that Titan, being just a moon, has a thick atmosphere. Usually, the answer includes magnetism: Earth has an atmosphere because the liquid iron in the outer core produces a magnetic field. This magnetic field changes the paths of the particles in the solar wind, thus preserving the volatile gases intact. Mars did use to have an atmosphere, just like Earth, but it being farther away from the Sun, the magma froze and lost its magnetic properties.

Titan itself doesn't have a magnetic field, but Saturn does. Saturn's magnetosphere is produced by the motion of the super-compressed hydrogen gas inside the planet (metallic fluid). The field is so strong it encompasses the satellites, including Titan.

Saturn doesn't have the same magma as Earth. Earth is a rocky planet. This means that it was formed so close to the sun that light gases (such as hydrogen) could not coalesce due to the high temperature and the solar wind. Therefore, the inner planets (Mercury to Mars) are composed mostly of rock and metal. It's the liquid iron in the outer core that makes Earth magnetic.

Gaseous planets instead have a small solid metal/rocky core (therefore, no magnetic field from there), and a huge layer of light gases (hydrogen and helium). The gases are not usually magnetic, but under such an enormous pressure they take a "metallic" structure, which means they can conduct electricity like a metal. This same property allows them to generate a magnetic field.

  • $\begingroup$ Why did saturn's magma didn't freeze? It is even more farther than the mars from Sun $\endgroup$
    – Strikers
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 5:53
  • $\begingroup$ The answer was a bit long, so I just inserted it into the answer above. The last two paragraphs. $\endgroup$
    – L.R.
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 8:46
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    $\begingroup$ No mention of escape velocity or temperature? $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Commented Nov 26, 2020 at 18:57
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The magma cooling has little to do with the distance to the Sun, it is about the size/mass and the composition of the planet. $\endgroup$
    – fraxinus
    Commented Dec 27, 2023 at 15:13

Solar wind (a flux of charged particles emitted by the star) is the main cause for celestial body losing its atmosphere. So, to keep an atmosphere celestial body would need a magnetosphere, that it, a magnetic field which deflects protons and electrons of solar wind and prevents them from giving molecules an energy to escape from upper layers of atmosphere.

According to current studies, the source of planetary magnetic field are eddy currents in liquid metal of rotating outer core, caused by convection and Coriolis force, so called "geomagnetic dynamo".

Now, Luna is pretty much geologically dead now. For the case of Mars, it has been hypothesized what its "dynamo" stopped by some reason, in any case it is a fact what Mars has weak and irregular magnetic field. But in case of Titan (which doesn't even have much metal in core), a gas giant with powerful magnetic field comes to rescue and protects its atmospheres from adverse effect of solar wind.


As an interesting trivia note, it has been hypothesized what this neighboring with radiation belt is the cause of higher hydrocarbons abundance on Titan.

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    $\begingroup$ What about Venus? It has no magnetic field and is much more exposed to solar wind than other atmospheric worlds. (I'm sorry to ask about Venus, since the answers about it generally seem to be: "We don't know") $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 5:49
  • $\begingroup$ @LocalFluff, you got me on that! Seriously, it's a really good question and I'd really like to know the answer for (and I wish there would be more Venus studies instead of daydreaming about Mars). Care to post that as question? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 7:24
  • $\begingroup$ It isn't useful to ask questions about it, since there are no answers. Venus is kind of a planet non grata, maybe because it is most like Earth. It is an outlier in most theories. IAU should've defined Venus, not Pluto, to be not a planet. If you like to learn about what is not known about Venus, I recommend Dave Stevenson, here's non-informative lecture of his: youtube.com/watch?v=ORUkiyoYy0E $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 7:39
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    $\begingroup$ Again, no mention of the basics of escape velocities and temperatures, which contribute to the answer. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Commented Nov 26, 2020 at 18:58
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This also doesn’t explain why the Galilean moons of Jupiter lack atmospheres, despite sitting inside Jupiter’s very strong magnetic field. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 15:44

It's cold out by Saturn, which reduces the tendency of gases to evaporate off into space.

Black body temperature of solar system objects:

  • Earth: distance D = 1 AU (288 K) 16°C
  • Mars: D =1.5 (232 K) -40°C
  • Jupiter: D = 5.2 ( 134 K) -138°C
  • Saturn: D = 9.5 (103 K) -169°C
  • ...........Titan (94 K) -178°C -measured vs calc for others
  • Uranus: D = 19.2 ( 73 K) -199°C
  • Neptune: D = 30.1 ( 63 K) -209°C

    Ganymede, massing 1.5X10^23 kg, vs Titan at 1.3X10^23 kg, has no substantial atmosphere, but it's also a lot warmer due to its proximity to the sun. Nitrogen boils at −196 °C, so it's not impossible that cold days on Titan involve nitrogen rainstorms. Methane and ethane have even higher boiling points


The magnetic field answers don't explain the fact that Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter with similar size and mass to Titan, doesn't have an atmosphere. Jupiter, like Saturn, has a strong magnetic field. IMHO the answer is more likely the difference in surface temperatures of the two moons. Titan's lower surface temperature means slower movement of gas molecules in its atmosphere and lower chance of them exceeding its escape speed. Generally a planet (or a moon for that matter) can retain a gas if the escape speed is at least 6 times greater than the average speed of the molecules in the gas. Plugging figures for Titan, Ganymede and the Nitrogen atom into these formulas:

Kinetic energy $$E_k=\frac{1}{2}mv^2$$ $$E_k= \text{kinetic energy of a gas atom or molecule in } J$$ $$m=\text{mass of gas, atom, or molecule }(\text{kg})$$ $$v=\text{speed of gas, atom, or molecule }\Big(\frac{m}{s}\Big)$$ Kinetic energy of a gas atom or molecule $$E_k=\frac{3}{2}kT$$ $$E_k=\text{kinetic energy of a gas, atom, or molecule }(J)$$ $$k=1.38\times10^{-23}\;\Big(\frac{J}{K},\text{Boltzmann constant}\Big)$$ $$T=\text{temperature of a gas }(K)$$ Escape velocity for a spherical body of mass M and radius R $$v_{\text{escape}}=\sqrt{\frac{2GM}{R}}$$

I got $\frac{v_{\text{escape Titan}}}{v_{\text{Nitrogen atom on Titan}}}=6.44$ while $\frac{v_{\text{escape Ganymede}}}{v_{\text{Nitrogen atom on Ganymede}}}=4.55$

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The factor 6 'requirement' is a simplified, completely arbitrary (you can make it 7 or 8) requirement, and not an on/off-switch, as the particles in the Boltzmann-tail of the velocity distribution scales linearly with $v_{\rm esc}/v_{\rm particle}$, when that parameter is larger than ~3.5. So while a commendable initiative, this answer does not show why Ganymede has no atmosphere, while Titan has one. AFAIK a definitive answer to this very interesting question doesn't exist, but it will have to do more with evolutionary and formation aspects than a slight difference in the escape parameter. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 22:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Comparing Titan & Ganymede is interesting because the radii, masses, densities, values for gravity & escape velocities for both are very similar to each other. Where they differ from each other are the values for bond albedo, solar irradiance, black body temperature, the composition of their atmospheres & the densities of their atmospheres as well as the composition of the celestial spheres themselves. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Commented Aug 27, 2021 at 10:23
  • $\begingroup$ Also radiation Jupiter’s magnetic field traps radiation and three of the moons are in the radiation belts $\endgroup$
    – A. N Asker
    Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 9:40

Simply said, the ability of planet or other body to maintain atmosphere depends on three factors:

  1. Its gravity
  2. Atmosphere temperature
  3. Chemical composition of atmosphere

You can estimate that using the simple formula

$$kT \ll \frac{GMm}{r}$$

Where $k$ is Boltzmann's constant, $T$ is absolute temperature of the gas, $G$ is the gravitational constant, $M$ is planet mass, and $m$ is the mass of particular molecule. If gas molecules satisfy the formula above, their kinetic energy is much less than the depth of potential well of planet's gravity, therefore they cannot escape. So the planet will keep its atmosphere.

In case of Earth, for example, its gravity is not enough to keep Hydrogen and Helium, which have smallest molecular masses ($m$=2 proton mass).

In case of cold atmosphere, the mass of celestial body able to keep it may be quite small. This is the reason, that Titan or Pluto have an atmosphere but Mercury or Moon have not.

  • $\begingroup$ The answer to the question has nothing with the solar winds or magnetic fields. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 19:07
  • $\begingroup$ castlerock.wednet.edu/HS/stello/Astronomy/TEXT/CHAISSON/BG305/… is another readable explanation of what this answer says. $\endgroup$
    – user21
    Commented Dec 29, 2014 at 23:30
  • $\begingroup$ It depends on the radius of the object, not just its gravity. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Commented Nov 26, 2020 at 19:00

Wikipedia has a section addressing this question that hasn't been covered by the other answers.

The summary is that the disparity between the atmosphere of Titan and similarly sized objects is not fully understood, but the main theory currently is that Titan has also been losing atmosphere over its lifetime, but as it started out in a much colder spot than Mars or the Moon, it was able to accrete a lot of nitrogen and ammonia which are too volatile to accrete in the warmer orbits of Mars and Earth, and so started out with a much thicker atmosphere and a lot more atmosphere forming nitrogen compounds below its surface. At its distance from the Sun atmospheric erosion is slower, but still its original atmosphere may have been many times thicker than even the thick atmosphere it has now.


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