Feb 18, 2020 - Science

Cosmic rays change atmosphere of Saturn's moon, Titan

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

Iron rain on an alien world

Artist's illustration of the iron rain. Photo: ESO/M. Kornmesser

A telescope in Chile has found a world 640 light-years from Earth that rains liquid iron, adding to the strange tapestry of planets far from our own.

Why it matters: The more that scientists understand about planets circling other stars, the closer they get to finding out just how unique (or common) our solar system — and therefore life — is.

Go deeperArrowMar 17, 2020 - Science

The Earth's gentle start

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The early Earth and other rocky planets may have formed quickly and gently, not violently through collapse and collision, as previously thought.

Why it matters: The details of Earth's formation are a long-standing mystery tied to how life may have arisen.

Go deeperArrowMar 3, 2020 - Science

Astronomers capture Earth's atmosphere glowing from space

Photo: NASA

Earth's atmosphere glows from space. This photo taken earlier this month shows the thin copper-tinted limb of the atmosphere as seen from the International Space Station.

How it works: The time-lapse photo was snapped as the orbiting outpost passed 262 miles above Kazakhstan. If you ever want to try to spot the station from your own backyard, you can use this handy tool to find out exactly when the space laboratory will pass overhead.

Go deeper: A fingerprint of Earth from space