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Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, started off as a beautiful, smooth red grape until someone came along, mostly peeled it, tried to smoosh it, then just gave up and walked away, leaving the poor moon to look like the absolute travesty that it is. Okay, so maybe that’s not exactly what happened, but Charon just looks like a mess and scientists want to know why. Never mind its smooshed equator, but what’s the deal with its red cap? Where did it come from and why is it red?

In two recent studies published in Science Advances and Geophysical Research Letters, Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) scientists combined data from NASA’s New Horizons mission with novel laboratory experiments and exospheric modeling to reveal the likely composition of the red cap on Pluto’s moon Charon and how it may have formed. This first-ever description of Charon’s dynamic methane atmosphere using new experimental data provides a fascinating glimpse into the origins of this moon’s red spot as described in the two recent papers.

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Southwest Research Institute scientists combined data from NASA’s New Horizons mission with novel laboratory experiments and exospheric modeling to reveal the likely composition of the red cap on Pluto’s moon Charon and how it may have formed. New findings suggest drastic seasonal surges in Charon’s thin atmosphere combined with light breaking down the condensing methane frost may be key to understanding the origins of Charon’s red polar zones. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/SwRI)

“Prior to New Horizons, the best Hubble images of Pluto revealed only a fuzzy blob of reflected light,” said SwRI’s Randy Gladstone, a member of the New Horizons science team. “In addition to all the fascinating features discovered on Pluto’s surface, the flyby revealed an unusual feature on Charon, a surprising red cap centered on its north pole.”

Soon after the 2015 encounter, New Horizons scientists proposed that a reddish “tholin-like” material at Charon’s pole could be synthesized by ultraviolet light breaking down methane molecules. These are captured after escaping from Pluto and then frozen onto the moon’s polar regions during their long winter nights. Tholins are sticky organic residues formed by chemical reactions powered by light, in this case the Lyman-alpha ultraviolet glow scattered by interplanetary hydrogen molecules.

“Our findings indicate that drastic seasonal surges in Charon’s thin atmosphere as well as light breaking down the condensing methane frost are key to understanding the origins of Charon’s red polar zone,” said SwRI’s Dr. Ujjwal Raut, lead author of the Science Advances paper. “This is one of the most illustrative and stark examples of surface-atmospheric interactions so far observed at a planetary body.”

The team realistically replicated Charon surface conditions at SwRI’s new Center for Laboratory Astrophysics and Space Science Experiments (CLASSE) to measure the composition and color of hydrocarbons produced on Charon’s winter hemisphere as methane freezes beneath the Lyman-alpha glow. The team fed the measurements into a new atmospheric model of Charon to show methane breaking down into residue on Charon’s north polar spot.

“Our team’s novel ‘dynamic photolysis’ experiments provided new limits on the contribution of interplanetary Lyman-alpha to the synthesis of Charon’s red material,” Raut said. “Our experiment condensed methane in an ultra-high vacuum chamber under exposure to Lyman-alpha photons to replicate with high fidelity the conditions at Charon’s poles.”

SwRI scientists also developed a new computer simulation to model Charon’s thin methane atmosphere.

“The model points to ‘explosive’ seasonal pulsations in Charon’s atmosphere due to extreme shifts in conditions over Pluto’s long journey around the Sun,” said Dr. Ben Teolis, lead author of the Geophysical Research Letters paper.

The team input the results from SwRI’s ultra-realistic experiments into the atmospheric model to estimate the distribution of

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Can We Survive in Space? It Might Depend on How Our Gut Microbiome Adapts

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For over a century, people have dreamed of the day when humanity (as a species) would venture into space. In recent decades, that dream has moved much closer to realization, thanks to the rise of the commercial space industry (NewSpace), renewed interest in space exploration, and long-term plans to establish habitats in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), on the lunar surface, and Mars. Based on the progression, it is clear that going to space exploration will not be reserved for astronauts and government space agencies for much longer.

But before the “Great Migration” can begin, there are a lot of questions that need to be addressed. Namely, how will prolonged exposure to microgravity and space radiation affect human health? These include the well-studied aspects of muscle and bone density loss and how time in space can impact our organ function and cardiovascular and psychological health. In a recent study, an international team of scientists considered an often-overlooked aspect of human health: our microbiome. In short, how will time in space affect our gut bacteria, which is crucial to our well-being?

The team consisted of biomedical researchers from the Ionizing and Non-ionizing Radiation Protection Research Center (INIRPRC) at the Shiraz University of Medical Sciences (SUMS), the Lebanese International University, the International University of Beirut, the MVLS College at The University of Glasgow, the Center for Applied Mathematics and Bioinformatics (CAMB) at Gulf University in Kuwait, the Nuclear Physics Institute (NPI) of the Czech Academy of Sciences (CAS), and the Technische Universität Wien Atominstitut in Vienna. The paper that describes their findings recently appeared in Frontiers of Microbiology.

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Artist’s impression of the Space Launch System (SLS) taking off. Credit: NASA

A microbiome is the collection of all microbes that live on and within our bodies, including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and their respective genes. These microbes are key to how our body interacts with the surrounding environment since they can affect how we respond to the presence of foreign bodies and substances. In particular, some microbes alter foreign bodies in ways that make them more harmful, while others act as a buffer that mitigates the effects of toxins. As they note in their study, the microbiota of astronauts will encounter elevated stress from microgravity and space radiation, including Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR).

Cosmic rays are a high-energy form of radiation that consists primarily of protons and atomic nuclei stripped of their electrons that have been accelerated to close to the speed of light. When these rays are generated from elements heavier than hydrogen or helium, their high-energy nuclei components are known as HZE ions, which are particularly hazardous. When these impact our atmosphere or protective shielding aboard spacecraft or the International Space Station (ISS), they result in showers of secondary particles.

While Earth’s protective magnetosphere and atmosphere prevent most of these particles from reaching the surface, astronauts in space are exposed to them regularly. As the authors noted, previous research has shown how this exposure could potentially enhance astronaut resilience to radiation, a process known as radio-adaptation. However, they also noted that the extent to which astronauts adapted varied from one astronaut to the next, with some experiencing adverse biological effects before embarking on a deep space mission.

For this reason, they recommend conducting further research to determine the risks associated with the space environment, as it mostly consists of protons, which astronauts will be exposed to before encountering HZE particles. Third, NASA’s Multi-Mission Model suggests that an astronaut’s first mission can be an adapting dose. However, the team notes that current research suggests that a second spaceflight does not necessarily increase the chances of genetic abnormalities as much as expected. This could mean that the
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The Best Ultralight Hiking and Running Jackets of 2024

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By Michael Lanza

You’re out on an all-day hike or a long climb or trail run or ride in the mountains. The weather forecast looked pretty good before you set out—but no one shared that memo with the wind that just started hammering your summit ridge, or the spitting rain and hail now pelting you as you contemplate the sudden drop in temperature and the miles between you and shelter. The question now is: What’s in your pack?

If you’re smart, it’s an ultralight jacket that takes up little space, but is about to gift you with just the right amount of weather protection when you need it.

This article offers my expert tips on how to choose the best ultralight shell for your needs, followed by my freshly updated picks for the best models on the market today, based on real-world, backcountry field testing and more than 25 years of experience reviewing outdoor gear and apparel, including more than 10 years running this blog and previously the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for 10 years.

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The Outdoor Research Helium Wind Hoodie.
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Ultralight Jackets Explained

What is an ultralight shell jacket? There’s no consensus definition, and considerable variation among today’s models. But basically, the term “ultralight jacket” explains their primary advantage: They weigh under about 10 ounces—and some a fraction of that—and are very packable, often stuffing down to the size of a fist. In other words, they are usually less than half the weight and bulk of a standard waterproof-breathable jacket. While a few may be partly or even fully waterproof, many are water-resistant and windproof, providing a minimum level of protection from the elements.

While these jackets, also known as ultralight wind shells, are marketed primarily to trail runners, they are often a better choice than a heavier, bulkier rain jacket for dayhikers, climbers, and lightweight/ultralight backpackers who don’t expect to encounter heavy rain. I’ve used many of the models reviewed here for lightweight dayhikes and some of the more durable models for backpacking and climbing when the forecast threatened no more than passing showers or thunderstorms.

Although they certainly look very minimalist, they deliver all the
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Review: Rocky Talkie Mountain Radio

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Two-Way Radio
Rocky Talkie Mountain Radio

$110 each/$220 per pair

6.1 oz./172.9g (one radio only), 7.9 oz./224g (including carabiners and leash)

rockytalkie.com

Over more than 30 years of climbing and skiing in the backcountry, I’ve had a few close calls, some directly due to the inability of my partner and I to hear or see one another. One of my most trusted partners—a longtime friend who once saved me from a potentially long lead-climbing fall by leaping down a steep hill at the route’s base to reel in many feet of rope—also once took me off belay before I reached the top of a pitch and anchored myself; fortunately, I didn’t fall. After relying on the sketchy low tech of shouting and rope signals for much too long, I’ve found a vastly more reliable, light, and inexpensive solution: the Rocky Talkie Mountain Radio.

On days of ski touring in the backcountry—where you need to know the location of your partners after skiing separately down runs and confirm that all are safe, and you can often be too far apart to hear or see one another and wind can drown out or distort shouts—I’ve found the Rocky Talkie Mountain Radio reliably provides clear communication, eliminating the need for often fruitless and frustrating shouts to one another.

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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.

The Rocky Talkie Mountain Radio.
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” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/Rocky-Talkie-Mountain-Radio-closeup-2.jpg?fit=300%2C225&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/Rocky-Talkie-Mountain-Radio-closeup-2.jpg?fit=900%2C675&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/Rocky-Talkie-Mountain-Radio-closeup-2.jpg?resize=900%2C675&ssl=1″ alt=”The Rocky Talkie Mountain Radio.” class=”wp-image-62090″ srcset=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/Rocky-Talkie-Mountain-Radio-closeup-2.jpg?resize=1024%2C768&ssl=1 1024w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/Rocky-Talkie-Mountain-Radio-closeup-2.jpg?resize=300%2C225&ssl=1 300w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/Rocky-Talkie-Mountain-Radio-closeup-2.jpg?resize=768%2C576&ssl=1 768w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/Rocky-Talkie-Mountain-Radio-closeup-2.jpg?resize=150%2C113&ssl=1 150w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/Rocky-Talkie-Mountain-Radio-closeup-2.jpg?w=1200&ssl=1 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />The Rocky Talkie Mountain Radio.

I’ve also used the Mountain Radio resort skiing at Northern California’s Palisades-Tahoe and Sugar Bowl resorts with my young-adult son, enabling us to discuss which runs to ski whenever we were too far apart to hear one another, or to locate one another when we took different runs. That’s particularly helpful when skiing unfamiliar resorts. (Radios are less necessary with a group who are all familiar with the resort and can plan where to rendezvous after a run and a phone call can usually clear up any miscommunication.)

The Rocky Talkie Mountain Radio is simple enough for a young child to master—and skiing parents know how easily one can lose a fast, young kid on the slopes. Yes, many resorts have cell service. But a cell phone is usually buried in a pocket where its sound is muffled and you have to remove a glove or mitten to operate it, whereas you can clip a two-way radio to a shoulder strap of a small pack—near your ear—where you need only to reach over and press the talk button to speak to a partner and will
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