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Hazes above Titan's atmosphere. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SScI

Galactic cosmic rays from outside of the solar system may change the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan, according to a new study.

Why it matters: Titan is one of the most intriguing objects in the solar system — with a thick atmosphere and liquid lakes of hydrocarbons — and scientists think it could harbor the ingredients necessary to support life in some form.

What they found: The new study in the Astrophysical Journal reveals that certain molecules in Titan's atmosphere are likely broken apart by not only the Sun's ultraviolet light, but by cosmic rays as well.

  • This means that scientists may need to factor cosmic rays into models of how Titan's atmosphere came to look the way it does, potentially changing how we understand the world and even its habitability.
"Figuring all this out is a really big deal because it will teach us about how planets make organic chemicals in their atmosphere. ... Maybe we could learn about what types of organics (potential life building blocks and food!) got made on early Earth or are being made on other worlds beyond our Solar System."
— Michael Malaska, a researcher unaffiliated with the study, to Axios via email

Yes, but: It's still not a sure thing that cosmic rays are having this effect on molecules in Titan's atmosphere, and new data is needed to confirm the finding.

The big picture: Titan will get a close-up mission of its own when NASA's Dragonfly launches in 2026.

  • The mission will use a drone to fly to various points of interest on Titan's surface, hunting for signs of life and characterizing the moon's atmosphere from within.

Go deeper

Mike Allen, author of AM
21 seconds ago - Politics & Policy

What to listen for in Biden's inaugural address

Vice President-elect Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, and President-elect Biden and Dr. Jill Biden arrive in Washington yesterday. Photo: Tom Brenner/Reuters

Reflecting both the man and the times, President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.'s inaugural address needs as much reality as poetry.

What to watch ... The president-elect will do both, sources tell me: Biden’s biography equips him not just to deliver a great speech, but also to start putting the public sector back in good working order.

Biden to sign 15 executive actions on Day One

President-elect Joe Biden. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to sign 15 executive actions upon taking office Wednesday, immediately reversing key Trump administration policies.

Why it matters: The 15 actions — aimed at issues like climate change and immigration — mark more drastic immediate steps compared with the two day-one actions from Biden's four predecessors combined, according to incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

Off the Rails

Episode 7: Trump turns on Pence

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Elijah Nouvelage, Alex Wong/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 7: Trump turns on Pence. Trump believes the vice president can solve all his problems by simply refusing to certify the Electoral College results. It's a simple test of loyalty: Trump or the U.S. Constitution.

"The end is coming, Donald."

The male voice in the TV ad boomed through the White House residence during "Fox & Friends" commercial breaks. Over and over and over. "The end is coming, Donald. ... On Jan. 6, Mike Pence will put the nail in your political coffin."