Extragalactic origin confirmed


Cosmic rays — fast-moving, high-energy nuclei — pervade the Universe. We know that the lower-energy variety that we detect on Earth is funnelled by the solar wind. However, higher-energy cosmic rays have an isotropic distribution due to scattering that makes it difficult to identify their source, although they are likely to be generated by high-energy phenomena like supernova explosions and jets from active galactic nuclei. By looking at the ultrahigh-energy end of the cosmic ray spectrum (on the order of exa-electron volts and higher, where cosmic rays are not scattered by solar-scale magnetic fields), the Pierre Auger Collaboration detected an anisotropy in their arrival directions that indicates an extragalactic origin.
Ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays are rare: typically one cosmic ray with an energy > 10 EeV hits each square kilometre of the Earth’s surface per year. The Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina detects cosmic rays using two combined techniques: telescopes to detect fluorescence from cosmic-ray-generated air showers, and a network of 12-tonne containers of ultrapure water, spread over an area of 3,000 square kilometres. Photomultiplier detectors in the containers observe the faint Cherenkov radiation generated when cosmic-ray-generated muons encounter water molecules. By reconstructing the cone of emission of the muon (analogous to an aircraft’s sonic boom) an incident direction can be derived. By analysing 32,187 cosmic rays detected over 12.75 years, a map of the sky was produced (pictured), showing evidence of an enhancement (5.2 σ significance) in a region away from the Galactic Centre (marked with an asterisk; the dashed line indicates the Galactic plane). The distance of this hotspot from the Galactic Centre (~125°) points towards an extragalactic origin of ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays, reinforcing previous (less conclusive) results from the Collaboration at lower energies.

Paul Woods, doi:10.1038/s41550-017-0304-0


Titan brighter at twilight than in daylight


Sketch showing the definition of phase angle

Muñoz, Antonio García, Panayotis Lavvas, and Robert A. West. “Titan brighter at twilight than in daylight.” Nature Astronomy 1, Article number: 0114 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41550-017-0114 (arXiv)

Investigating the overall brightness of planets (and moons) provides insights into their envelopes and energy budgets. Phase curves (a representation of the overall brightness versus the Sun–object–observer phase angle) for Titan have been published over a limited range of phase angles and spectral passbands. Such information has been key to the study of the stratification, microphysics and aggregate nature of Titan’s atmospheric haze and has complemented the spatially resolved observations showing that the haze scatters efficiently in the forward direction. Here, we present Cassini Imaging Science Subsystem whole-disk brightness measurements of Titan from ultraviolet to near-infrared wavelengths. The observations show that Titan’s twilight (loosely defined as the view at phase angles ≳150°) outshines its daylight at various wavelengths. From the match between measurements and models, we show that at even larger phase angles, the back-illuminated moon will appear much brighter than when fully illuminated. This behaviour is unique in our Solar System to Titan and is caused by its extended atmosphere and the efficient forward scattering of sunlight by its atmospheric haze. We infer a solar energy deposition rate (for a solar constant of 14.9 W m−2) of (2.84 ± 0.11) × 1014 W, consistent to within one to two standard deviations with Titan’s time-varying thermal emission from 2007 to 2013. We propose that a forward scattering signature may also occur at large phase angles in the brightness of exoplanets with extended hazy atmospheres and that this signature has a valuable diagnostic potential for atmospheric characterization.