Category Archives: Science

This Toxic Compound on Titan Could Support Life “Not as We Know It”

Illustration of a sunrise over a liquid methane lake on Titan. © Ron Miller. All rights reserved.

Saturn’s largest moon Titan is often called an analogy to early Earth, with its thick, chemical-rich atmosphere and widespread system of flowing rivers and north polar lakes. But located almost a billion miles away from the Sun, everything on Titan is shifted into a completely different—and frigid—level of existence from that found on Earth. With surface temperatures of 300 degrees below zero F, the lakes are filled with liquid methane and what’s life-giving water here is literally solid rock there. Even the rain on Titan falls as oversized drops of ethane.

But even in this extreme cryo-environment it’s possible that life may right now exist…life relying on an entirely different chemistry than what’s possible on our planet.

Recently scientists have identified a molecule on Titan called vinyl cyanide, or acrylonitrile. To Earthly life acrylonitrile is toxic and carcinogenic; luckily for us it isn’t naturally-occurring here. But on Titan it is and apparently in quantity; it’s possible that vinyl cyanide, raining down from Titan’s atmosphere into its vast hydrocarbon lakes, could even help form methane-based cell structures in much the same way phospholipids do here.

The molecule (C2H3CN) has the ability to form membranes and, if found in liquid pools of hydrocarbons on Titan’s surface, it could form a kind of lipid-based cell membrane analog of living organisms on Earth. In other words, this molecule could stew in primordial pools of hydrocarbons and arrange itself in such a way to create a “protocell” that is “stable and flexible in liquid methane,” said Jonathan Lunine (Cornell University) who, in 2015, was a member of the team who modeled vinyl cyanide and found that it might form cell membranes.

Further evidence of life “not as we know it?” Read more on Ian O’Neill’s Astroengine blog here: Vinyl Cyanide Confirmed: Weird Form of Alien Life May Be Possible on Saturn’s Moon Titan and in a Gizmodo article by Maddie Stone here: Potential Building Block of Alien Life Spotted in Titan’s Atmosphere


Meteors May Make Your Hair Hiss

Meteors typically occur about 50 to 75 miles above the ground. This one was photographed from above by astronaut Ron Garan aboard the ISS in August 2011. (NASA image)

Meteors typically occur about 50 to 75 miles above the ground. This Perseid meteor was photographed from above by astronaut Ron Garan aboard the ISS in August 2011. (NASA image)

Have you ever gone outside on a cold, clear night to watch a meteor shower and witness a super-bright fireball racing across the sky so brilliantly that you could swear you could hear it? Turns out the sizzling noise might not have been all in your head after all…but rather on it. (And here’s science to prove it.)

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The Chirp Heard Round the World: How Scientists Confirmed the LIGO Detection

It’s been a year since researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first direct observations of gravitational waves, the oscillations in the fabric of space and time created by powerful cosmic events—like the merging of two massive black holes. This cosmic phenomenon was first predicted by Einstein in 1915, but it took a century for technology to become capable of detecting it. On Sept. 14, 2015, the twin LIGO observatories in Louisiana and Washington state both registered an oh-so-subtle shake that came from far outside our planet…1.3 billion light-years away, in fact.

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NASA’s Launching Rockets in Alaska to Study Ozone-Killing Compounds

Black Brant IX PolarNOx launch on Jan. 27, 2017. (NASA/Jamie Adkins)

Black Brant IX sounding rocket was launched 175 miles high early Friday morning, Jan. 27, 2017, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Poker Flat Research Range to study levels of nitric oxide in the atmosphere as part of the Polar Night Nitric Oxide Experiment (PolarNOx).

“The aurora creates nitric oxide, but in the polar night there is no significant process for destroying the nitric oxide,” said Scott Bailey, the principal investigator for PolarNOx from Virginia Tech. “We believe it builds up to large concentrations. The purpose of our rocket is to measure the abundance and altitude of peak abundance for the nitric oxide.”

“Nitric oxide under appropriate conditions can be transported to the stratosphere where it will catalytically destroy ozone,” Bailey said. Those changes in ozone can lead to changes in stratospheric temperature and wind, and may even impact the circulation at Earth’s surface.

Read the full story here: NASA Sounding Rocket Successfully Launches into Alaskan Night

Spaceflight Affects Everything: First Findings In from NASA’s Twins Study

Twin NASA astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly. (Pat Sullivan/AP Photo)

The first preliminary findings have been announced from NASA’s Twins Study, which used the rare opportunity of having identical twin astronauts—Mark and Scott Kelly—agree to (actually it was their idea!) make “human guinea pigs” of themselves during Scott’s One-Year Mission aboard the Space Station in 2015–2016. The results comparing Mark on Earth to Scott in space show variations in nearly all physiological aspects, from gut microbes to genetic signatures.

“Almost everyone is reporting that we see differences”, said Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. “The data are so fresh that some of them are still coming off the sequencing machines.”

This news comes nearly two years after the study was first reported, when it was suggested that any findings might never get published because of personal security issues over genetic information….and even now the Kellys will have final say over what information is released.

Read the rest of this story by Alexandra Witze on Nature here: Astronaut twin study hints at stress of space travel

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