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Mars is the next frontier of human space exploration, with NASA, China, and SpaceX all planning to send crewed missions there in the coming decades. In each case, the plans consist of establishing habitats on the surface that will enable return missions, cutting-edge research, and maybe even permanent settlements someday. While the idea of putting boots on Martian soil is exciting, a slew of challenges need to be addressed well in advance. Not the least of which is the need to locate sources of water, which consist largely of subsurface deposits of water ice.

Herein lies another major challenge: Martian ice deposits are contaminated by toxic perchlorates, potent oxidizers that cause equipment corrosion and are hazardous to human health (even at low concentrations). To this end, crewed missions must bring special equipment to remove perchlorates from water on Mars if they intend to use it for drinking, irrigation, and manufacturing propellant. This is the purpose of Detoxifying Mars, a proposed concept selected by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program for Phase I development.

The lead developer of this concept is Lynn Rothschild, a Senior Research Scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center (ARC) and the Research and Technology Lead for the Science and Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA HQ. As she and her colleagues noted in their proposal, the “scale of anticipated water demand on Mars highlights the shortcomings of traditional water purification approaches, which require either large amounts of consumable materials, high electrical draw, or water pretreatment.”

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Graphic depiction of Detoxifying Mars: the biocatalytic elimination of omnipresent perchlorates. Credit: Lynn Rothschild

Perchlorates (ClO4-) are chemical compounds that contain the perchlorate ion, which form when chlorine compounds become oxidized. Perchlorate salts are kinetically stable, very soluble, have a low eutectic temperature (the lowest possible temperature they can achieve before freezing), and become very reactive at high temperatures. Chlorate (ClO3-) salts are similar, though they are less kinetically stable than perchlorates. Perchlorates were first detected on Mars by the Wet Chemistry Laboratory (WCL) instrument on the Phoenix mission, which landed in the northern Vastitas Borealis region in May 2028.

With concentrations of about 0.5% found in these northern plain soils, scientists realized why previous attempts to find organic molecules in Martian soil had failed. In short, the perchlorate prevented mass spectrometers on the Phoenix and the famed Viking 1 and 2 landers (which explored Mars between 1976 and 1980) from detecting anything. This discovery led to renewed interest in the search for organics and astrobiology studies on Mars, leading to the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers. Since then, perchlorate (and likely chlorate) concentrations have been detected by multiple missions from both the surface and orbit.

Here on Earth, perchlorates are naturally reduced by bacteria found in hypersaline soils, which have applications for water decontamination. Unfortunately, these same bacteria are unsuitable for off-world use since they are not spaceflight-proven. Instead, Rothschild and her team envision a bioreactor that leverages synthetic biology to take advantage of (and improve upon) this natural perchlorate-reducing process. Specifically, their method relies on two key genes found in Earth-based perchlorate-reducing bacteria (pcrAB and cld).

These genes are then engineered into the spaceflight-proven Bacillus subtilis 168 bacteria strain, which will naturally convert chlorate (ClO-3) and perchlorate (ClO4-) into chloride (Cl-) and oxygen gas (O2). The oxygen gas would be immediately useable in Martian habitats or stored in tanks for extra-vehicular activities (EVAs), while the chloride could be used for various purposes, including nutrition. The process is highly sustainable, scalable, and
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Stellar Winds Coming From Other Stars Measured for the First Time

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An international research team led by the University of Vienna has made a major breakthrough. In a study recently published in Nature Astronomy, they describe how they conducted the first direct measurements of stellar wind in three Sun-like star systems. Using X-ray emission data obtained by the ESA’s X-ray Multi-Mirror-Newton (XMM-Newton) of these stars’ “astrospheres,” they measured the mass loss rate of these stars via stellar winds. The study of how stars and planets co-evolve could assist in the search for life while also helping astronomers predict the future evolution of our Solar System.

The research was led by Kristina G. Kislyakova, a Senior Scientist with the Department of Astrophysics at the University of Vienna, the deputy head of the Star and Planet Formation group, and the lead coordinator of the ERASMUS+ program. She was joined by other astrophysicists from the University of Vienna, the Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales (LAMOS) at the Sorbonne University, the University of Leicester, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL).

Astrospheres are the analogs of our Solar System’s heliosphere, the outermost atmospheric layer of our Sun, composed of hot plasma pushed by solar winds into the interstellar medium (ISM). These winds drive many processes that cause planetary atmospheres to be lost to space (aka. atmospheric mass loss). Assuming a planet’s atmosphere is regularly replenished and/or has a protective magnetosphere, these winds can be the deciding factor between a planet becoming habitable or a lifeless ball of rock.

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Logarithmic scale of the Solar System, Heliosphere, and Interstellar Medium (ISM). Credit: NASA-JPL

While stellar winds mainly comprise protons, electrons, and alpha particles, they also contain trace amounts of heavy ions and atomic nuclei, such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, and even iron. Despite their importance to stellar and planetary evolution, the winds of Sun-like stars are notoriously difficult to constrain. However, these heavier ions are known to capture electrons from neutral hydrogen that permeates the ISM, resulting in X-ray emissions. Using data from the XXM-Newton mission, Kislyakova and her team detected these emissions from other stars.

These were 70 Ophiuchi, Epsilon Eridani, and 61 Cygni, three main sequence Sun-like stars located 16.6, 10.475, and 11.4 light-years from Earth (respectively). Whereas 70 Ophiuchi and 61 Cygni are binary systems of two K-type (orange dwarf) stars, Epsilon Eridani is a single K-type star. By observing the spectral lines of oxygen ions, they could directly quantify the total mass of stellar wind emitted by all three stars. For the three stars surveyed, they estimated the mass loss rates to be 66.5±11.1, 15.6±4.4, and 9.6±4.1 times the solar mass loss rate, respectively.

In short, this means that the winds from these stars are much stronger than our Sun’s, which could result from the stronger magnetic activity of these stars. As Kislyakova related in a University of Vienna news release:

“In the solar system, solar wind charge exchange emission has been observed from planets, comets, and the heliosphere and provides a natural laboratory to study the solar wind’s composition. Observing this emission from distant stars is much more tricky due to the faintness of the signal. In addition to that, the distance to the stars makes it very difficult to disentangle the signal emitted by the astrosphere from the actual X-ray emission of the star itself, part of which is “spread” over the field-of-view of the telescope due to instrumental effects.”

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XMM-Newton X-ray image of the star 70 Ophiuchi (left) and
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How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be

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By Michael Lanza

“How hard will that hike be?” That’s a question that
all dayhikers and backpackers, from beginners to experts, think about all the
time—and it’s not always easy to answer. But there are ways of evaluating the
difficulty of any hike, using readily available information, that can greatly
help you understand what to expect before you even leave home. Here’s
how.

No matter how relatively easy or arduous the hike you’re considering, or where you fall on the spectrum of hiking experience or personal fitness level, this article will tell you exactly how to answer that question—and which questions to ask and what information to seek to reach that answer. This article shares what I’ve learned over four decades of backpacking and dayhiking, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog, and this knowledge can help ensure that you and your companions or your family don’t get in over your heads.

Whether you’re new to dayhiking or backpacking, a
parent planning a hike with young kids, or a fit and experienced dayhiker or
backpacker contemplating one of the toughest hikes you’ve ever attempted, it’s
important to have a good sense of what you’ll face on a new and unfamiliar hike
and whether it’s within your abilities.

Tet19 047 Me on Teton Crest Trail copy cropped 17 jpg
Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-books to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

A backpacker hiking the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.
” data-image-caption=”Pam Solon backpacking the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo to read about backpacking in Glacier.
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park.jpg?fit=300%2C200&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park.jpg?fit=900%2C600&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park-1024×683.jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1″ alt=”A backpacker hiking the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.” class=”wp-image-61235″ srcset=”https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park.jpg 1024w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park.jpg 300w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park.jpg 768w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park.jpg 150w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park.jpg 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />Pam Solon backpacking the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo to read about backpacking in Glacier.

Exceeding your limits or those of someone with you can
invite unwanted consequences—and the person with the least stamina,
abilities, or experience often dictates any party’s pace, limits, and outcomes.
Those consequences
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The 12 Best Down Jackets of 2024

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By Michael Lanza

Whatever you need an insulated jacket for, there’s a down or synthetic puffy for your needs, within your budget. And whether you want a puffy jacket for outdoor activities like backpacking, camping, skiing, climbing, and hut treks, or just to keep you warm around town or at outdoor sporting events, this review will help you figure out how to choose the right jacket for your purposes, and it spotlights the best down and synthetic insulated jackets available today.

I selected the jackets covered in this review after extensive testing on backpacking, camping, backcountry ski touring, climbing and other backcountry trips. I’ve field-tested dozens of insulated jackets over nearly three decades of testing and reviewing gear, formerly as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for 10 years and even longer running this blog.

Technology has blurred the traditional lines between down and synthetics, with water-resistant down that traps heat even when wet—all but eliminating the weakness that had long been the Achilles heel of down—and synthetic insulation materials that approach the warmth-to-weight ratio and compressibility of down.

If you’d prefer, scroll past my buying tips to dive immediately into the jacket reviews.

If you have a question for me or a comment on this review, please leave it in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

Tet19 047 Me on Teton Crest Trail copy cropped 15 jpg
Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

The Black Diamond Approach Down Hoody.
” data-image-caption=”The Black Diamond Approach Down Hoody in the Grand Canyon.
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/06225653/Black-Diamond-Approach-Down-Hoody-hood-up-1.jpg?fit=300%2C200&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/06225653/Black-Diamond-Approach-Down-Hoody-hood-up-1.jpg?fit=900%2C600&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/06225653/Black-Diamond-Approach-Down-Hoody-hood-up-1-1024×683.jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1″ alt=”The Black Diamond Approach Down Hoody.” class=”wp-image-52287″ srcset=”https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/06225653/Black-Diamond-Approach-Down-Hoody-hood-up-1.jpg 1024w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/06225653/Black-Diamond-Approach-Down-Hoody-hood-up-1.jpg 300w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/06225653/Black-Diamond-Approach-Down-Hoody-hood-up-1.jpg 768w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/06225653/Black-Diamond-Approach-Down-Hoody-hood-up-1.jpg 150w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/06225653/Black-Diamond-Approach-Down-Hoody-hood-up-1.jpg 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />The Black Diamond Approach Down Hoody in the Grand Canyon.

How to Choose a Synthetic or Down Jacket

Insulated jackets today differ not only in type and amount of insulation, but also in water resistance, breathability, and as always, design features like the hood and pockets. When choosing between down and synthetic models, consider the usual conditions and temperatures in which you’ll use it—in other words, how wet and cold you expect to get, and your body type (how easily you get cold)—as well as the seasonal and activity versatility you require. Some questions to
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