Soak up the Sun (5/4/23)
Good afternoon, and happy Thursday. Have you heard enough Star Wars jokes yet today?
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A 2015 coronal mass ejection. Image: NASA/SDO
The organic molecules that make up life on Earth had to come from somewhere, but it’s a great mystery exactly how they formed.
An international team led by NASA and the Yokohama National University in Japan has taken a step to understand the origin of complex molecules on our planet.
Back in the early days of Earth, the atmosphere and the Sun looked very different. Using a particle accelerator and a simulated version of Earth’s early atmosphere, the research team demonstrated that in these early conditions, energetic rays from the Sun could have transformed the elements of the primordial atmosphere into amino acids. The findings were published this week in the journal Life.
The early atmosphere: About 70 years ago, scientists believed that the early atmosphere consisted mostly of methane, ammonia, water, and molecular hydrogen. A 1953 experiment that zapped a combination of these gasses with an electrical current meant to simulate lightning successfully synthesized a variety of different amino acids.
Now, though, our understanding of the primordial atmosphere has developed, and scientists believe that there was far less methane and ammonia. Instead, that atmosphere likely contained a higher concentration of carbon dioxide and molecular nitrogen—tougher molecules to break down. Lightning wasn’t going to cut it.
The early Sun: Recent research suggests that the Sun shone differently back then, too. A paper published in 2016 by one of the study’s co-authors, NASA stellar scientist Vladimir Airapetian, suggested that for the first 100 million years of the Earth’s existence, the Sun was significantly dimmer—about 30%, to be specific—but experienced supercharged solar flares every few Earth days.
Putting the pieces together: To test whether a dimmer, more volatile early Sun could synthesize amino acids from the currently theorized composition of Earth’s early atmosphere, Airapetian teamed up with a Yokohama National University team and began zapping different combos of gasses with 1) protons to simulate solar flare energy and 2) sparks to simulate lightning, like in the 1953 experiment.
The team found that only an 0.5% concentration of methane was needed for the proton charge to synthesize amino acids, while a 15% methane concentration was needed for the spark to create any—and at a much lower rate at that. The lower concentration is more along the lines of the expected makeup of the primordial atmosphere.
What’s next? Powerful solar flares are the strongest theory we have yet for how amino acids formed from the foundational materials of a young Earth. As we turn our eyes to the cosmos in the search for life elsewhere in the universe, clues like this could help guide the hunt.
Lifting Humankind to New Heights
NASA's Space Launch System is the world’s most powerful heavy-lift rocket.
The SLS, including the Boeing-built core stage, is designed to send humanity back to the Moon, on to Mars and into the unexplored.
Learn more about how NASA’s Space Launch System is paving the way for humanity to go farther than it has ever gone before.
Other News from the Cosmos
JUICE, ESA’s flagship Jupiter mission, is having some trouble unfurling its antenna.
Glass beads on the lunar surface formed during meteor impacts could contain a whole lot of water for astronauts to take advantage of in future missions, according to observations from China’s Chang’e rover.
UFOs—ultra-fast outflows of gas that emit from black holes, not the other kind—were identified flowing between 10% and 30% the speed of light from 30% of galactic nuclei analyzed by a team of astronomers.
JWST spotted water in the atmospheric signature of rocky exoplanet GJ 486 b, but researchers believe that the reading might be coming from the star itself rather than the planet.
Landslides can be predicted more accurately using remote sensing and change detection.
Two stars that touch in their orbit around one another are on track to become one black hole once they fully combine in ~18B years.
Mars is showing signs of water in the past few million years at its lower latitudes, China’s Zhurong rover found.
A tidal disruption event, i.e. the bright flash when a black hole consumes a star, has been observed closer than ever before.
🌟 Gobbled up: Sometimes, planets stray a little too close to the stars they’re orbiting and fall right in. Recently, scientists observed this event, called a planetary engulfment, in action for the first time ever. Science reporter Becky Ferreira covered the research in a story for the New York Times that tracks the findings from the first observations to now.
👽 Extraterrestrial signals: Humanity figured out how to send messages via radio wave more than 100 years ago. Now, it might be time to start listening for a response from elsewhere in the cosmos. For New Scientist, reporter Alex Wilkins tracks the journey of a radio wave from Earth to the nearest stars and explains a study that recently found that if there’s someone out there to send a response, a message might be en route.
Register for Payload’s Next Webinar
Launch costs have fallen dramatically over the past several years, and much of the space industry is lasered-in on reaching LEO, but GEO and cislunar launch is also ripe for cost disruption. The use of orbital transfer vehicles (OTVs) in in-space transportation and services is a key factor in achieving this vision.
Join Payload’s Jess Lis for a conversation about expanding cost-effective launch beyond LEO on May 11!
The View from Space
The European Space Agency’s new weather satellite, Mateosat, has begun beaming images home—and they’re something to see.