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On March 20th, China’s Queqiao-2 (“Magpie Bridge-2”) satellite launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Site LC-2 on the island of Hainan (in southern China) atop a Long March-8 Y3 carrier rocket. This mission is the second in a series of communications relay and radio astronomy satellites designed to support the fourth phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (Chang’e). On March 24th, after 119 hours in transit, the satellite reached the Moon and began a perilune braking maneuver at a distance of 440 km (~270 mi) from the lunar surface.

The maneuver lasted 19 minutes, after which the satellite entered lunar orbit, where it will soon relay communications from missions on the far side of the Moon around the South Pole region. This includes the Chang’e-4 lander and rover and will extend to the Chang’e-6 sample-return mission, which is scheduled to launch in May. It will also assist Chang’e-7 and -8 (scheduled for 2026 and 2028, respectively), consisting of an orbiter, rover, and lander mission, and a platform that will test technologies necessary for the construction of the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

A perilune braking maneuver is vital to establishing a lunar orbit and consists of a thruster firing as the spacecraft approaches the Moon. This reduces the spacecraft’s relative velocity to less than the lunar escape velocity (2.38 km/s; 1.74 mps) so that it can be captured by the Moon’s gravity. Two experimental satellites that will test navigation and communication technology (Tiandu-1 and -2), which accompanied the Queqiao-2 satellite to the Moon, also performed a perilune braking maneuver and entered lunar orbit on Monday.

These two satellites will remain in formation in an elliptical lunar orbit and will conduct communication and navigation tests, including laser ranging with the Moon and microwave ranging between satellites. According to the CNSA, Queqiao-2 will enter a 24-hour elliptical orbit around the Moon at a distance of 200 km (125 mi) at its closest point (perigee) and 100,000 km (62,000 mi) at its farthest point (apogee). Mission controllers will further alter Queqiao-2’s orbit and inclination to bring it into a “200 by 16,000-km, highly-elliptical ‘frozen’ orbit.”

Within this highly stable orbit, Queqiao-2 will have a direct line of sight with ground stations on Earth and the far side of the Moon and will conduct communication tests with Chang’e-4 and Chang’e-6 using its 4.2-m (13.8-ft) parabolic antenna. The mission could also support other countries in their lunar exploration efforts, many of whom are also interested in scouting the Moon’s far side and southern polar region. The satellite also carries scientific instruments, including extreme ultraviolet cameras, array-neutral atom imagers, and lunar orbit Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) test subsystems.

According to state-owned media company CCTV, the CNSA chose the Queqiao-2 satellite’s present orbit for a multitude of reasons:

“Experts told me that this is an ideal location on the Moon to observe the separation of the Queqiao-2 star arrow, and it also has a deep connection with China’s lunar exploration project. This is the Moon’s rich maria region… Fifteen years ago, on March 1, 2009, it was here that the Chang’e-1 probe of China’s lunar exploration project completed a controlled collision with the Moon… The location of the Sea of Abundance on the moon is also very eye-catching. The next time the moon is full, you look up at the moon and find this dark black patch in the southeast of the moon. This is the Sea of Abundance!”

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Visualization of the ILRS from the CNSA Guide to Partnership (June 2021). Credit: CNSA

The satellite will support China’s upcoming Chang’e-6 mission, China’s second attempt to return lunar samples to Earth. Mission controllers will adjust its orbit into a 12-hour period to support the Chang’e-7 and -8 missions. These missions aim to map the terrain and scout resources (particularly water ice) around the South Pole-Aitken Basin. These
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The Brightest Gamma Ray Burst Ever Seen Came from a Collapsing Star

grb profiles

After a journey lasting about two billion years, photons from an extremely energetic gamma-ray burst (GRB) struck the sensors on the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory and the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope on October 9th, 2022. The GRB lasted seven minutes but was visible for much longer. Even amateur astronomers spotted the powerful burst in visible frequencies.

It was so powerful that it affected Earth’s atmosphere, a remarkable feat for something more than two billion light-years away. It’s the brightest GRB ever observed, and since then, astrophysicists have searched for its source.

NASA says GRBs are the most powerful explosions in the Universe. They were first detected in the late 1960s by American satellites launched to keep an eye on the USSR. The Americans were concerned that the Russians might keep testing atomic weapons despite signing 1963’s Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Now, we detect about one GRB daily, and they’re always in distant galaxies. Astrophysicists struggled to explain them, coming up with different hypotheses. There was so much research into them that by the year 2,000, an average of 1.5 articles on GRBs were published in scientific journals daily.

There were many different proposed causes. Some thought that GRBs could be released when comets collided with neutron stars. Others thought they could come from massive stars collapsing to become black holes. In fact, scientists wondered if quasars, supernovae, pulsars, and even globular clusters could be the cause of GRBs or associated with them somehow.

GRBs are confounding because their light curves are so complex. No two are identical. But astrophysicists made progress, and they’ve learned a few things. Short-duration GRBs are caused by the merger of two neutron stars or the merger of a neutron star and a black hole. Longer-duration GRBs are caused by a massive star collapsing and forming a black hole.

This sample of 12 GRB light curves shows how no two are the same. Image Credit: NASA
This sample of 12 GRB light curves shows how no two are the same. Image Credit: NASA

New research in Nature examined the ultra-energetic GRB 221009A, dubbed the “B.O.A.T: Brightest Of All Time,” and found something surprising. When it was initially discovered, scientists said it was caused by a massive star collapsing into a black hole. The new research doesn’t contradict that. But it presents a new mystery: why are there no heavy elements in the newly uncovered supernova?

The research is “JWST detection of a supernova associated with GRB 221009A without an r-process signature.” The lead author is Peter Blanchard, a Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) postdoctoral fellow.

“The GRB was so bright that it obscured any potential supernova signature in the first weeks and months after the burst,” Blanchard said. “At these times, the so-called afterglow of the GRB was like the headlights of a car coming straight at you, preventing you from seeing the car itself. So, we had to wait for it to fade significantly to give us a chance of seeing the supernova.”

“When we confirmed that the GRB was generated by the collapse of a massive star, that gave us the opportunity to test a hypothesis for how some of the heaviest elements in the universe are formed,” said lead author Blanchard. “We did not see signatures of these heavy elements, suggesting that extremely energetic GRBs like the B.O.A.T. do not produce these elements. That doesn’t mean that all GRBs do not produce them, but it’s a key piece of information as we continue to understand where these heavy elements come from. Future observations with JWST will determine if the B.O.A.T.’s ‘normal’ cousins produce these elements.”

Scientists know that supernova explosions forge heavy elements. They’re an important source of elements from oxygen (atomic number 8) to rubidium (atomic number 37) in the interstellar medium. They also produce heavier elements than that. Heavy elements are necessary to form rocky planets like Earth and for life itself. But it’s important to note that astrophysicists don’t completely understand how heavy elements are produced.

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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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