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Viking’s biochemistry experiments have been among the most hotly debated scientific results of all time.  The lander famously collected samples from the Red Planet in 1976, in an experiment called “Label Release.”  Scientists watched with bated breath as oxygen was released from the sample after it was subjected to a liquid slurry.  They were then left scratching their heads as that oxygen production continued after the sample was sterilized via 160 degree C heat.  Scientists now really agree that the oxygen production that Viking noticed was an abiotic process.  But that also leads to a potential opportunity as some scientists think we can make oxygen farms out of a system similar to that used on Viking itself.

Reactive oxygen species found in the Martian soil most likely reacted with liquid water, causing those reactive species to release their oxygen and turn into a more mundane and less dangerous material.  Continual exposure to reactive oxygen species comes with a whole slew of detrimental side effects, such as burns and potentially cancer.  And just those kinds of species are all over the surface of both the moon and Mars.

Model of the Viking lander that performed the experiments that inspired the search for the current tool under development.
Model of the Viking lander that performed the experiments that inspired the search for the current tool under development.
Credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona

Therefore, any technique to eliminate those potentially dangerous materials is welcome.  In our bodies, antioxidants play the role of reactive agent fighters.  Whereas Mars or the Moon doesn’t have such a defense mechanism, humans might build one.   It might even be able to act as a sort of “oxygen farm,” allowing the oxygen released by these abiotic reactions to be transferred to breathable air.

First, explorers would have to see where those reactive species are.  The best way to do that would be via a detector, and Prof. Christos Georgiou of the University of Patras thinks he has an excellent method to find them – by using a slightly modified version of Viking’s original experiment.

UT video discussing the viability of growing crops on Mars.

Using a microfluidic channel to introduce a small amount of liquid to samples collected by explorers themselves would release oxygen in the presence of reactive oxygen species.  That oxygen release could act as at least a binary check of whether those species were present or not.  

Such a binary check would be useful for more than just whether or not there would be potentially harmful chemicals in the area – it would also help limit the scope of the search for former life on these worlds.  Reactive oxygen species would destroy any biological matter they come into contact with, so the chances of finding a fossil or another signature biomarker around large amounts of reactive species would be negligible.  

Poster description of how the detection mechanism would work.
Poster description of how the detection mechanism would work.
Credit –
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European Satellite ERS-2 to Reenter Earth’s Atmosphere This Week

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One of the largest reentries in recent years, ESA’s ERS-2 satellite is coming down this week.

After almost three decades in orbit, an early Earth-observation satellite is finally coming down this week. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Remote Sensing satellite ERS-2 is set to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere on or around Wednesday, February 21st.

Trail Blazing Mission

Launched atop an Ariane-4 rocket from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on April 21st, 1995, ERS-2 was one of ESA’s first Earth observation satellites. ERS-2 monitored land masses, oceans, rivers, vegetation and the polar regions of the Earth using visible light and ultraviolet sensors. The mission was on hand for several natural disasters, including the flood of the Elbe River across Germany in 2006. ERS-2 ceased operations in September 2011.

Anatomy of the reentry of ERS-2. ESA

ERS-2 was placed in a retrograde, Sun-synchronous low Earth orbit, inclined 98.5 degrees relative to the equator. This orbit is typical for Earth-observing and clandestine spy satellites, as it allows the mission to image key target sites at the same relative Sun angle, an attribute handy for image interpretation.

ERS-2 tracks and ice floe. ESA

The Last Days of ERS-2

Reentry predictions for the satellite are centered on February 21st at 00:19 Universal Time (UT)+/- 25 hours. As we get closer, expect that time to get refined. The mass of ERS-2 at launch (including fuel) was 2,516 kilograms. Expect most of the satellite to burn up on reentry.

The orbital path of ERS-2. Orbitron

For context, recent high profile reentries include the UARS satellite (6.5 tons, in 2011), and the massive Long March-5B booster that launched the core module for China’s Tiangong Space Station in late 2022 (weighing in at 23 tons).

ERS-2 in the clean room on Earth prior to launch. ESA

ESA passed its first space debris mitigation policy in 2008, 13 years after ERS-2 was launched. In 2011, ESA decided to passively reenter the satellite, and began a series of 66 deorbiting maneuvers to bring its orbit down from 785 kilometers to 573 kilometers. Its fuel drained and batteries exhausted, ERS-2 is now succumbing to the increased drag of the Earth’s atmosphere as we near the peak of the current solar cycle.

North Prague Floods ERS

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Look at How Much the Sun Has Changed in Just Two Years

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The solar cycle has been reasonably well understood since 1843 when Samuel Schwabe spent 17 years observing the variation of sunspots. Since then, we have regularly observed the ebb and flow of the sunspots cycle every 11 years. More recently ESA’s Solar Orbiter has taken regular images of the Sun to track the progress as we head towards the peak of the current solar cycle. Two recently released images from February 2021 and October 2023 show how things are really picking up as we head toward solar maximum.

The Sun is a great big ball of plasma, electrically charged gas, which has the amazing property that it can move a magnetic field that may be embedded within.  As the Sun rotates, the magnetic field gets dragged around with it but, because the Sun rotates faster at the equator than at the poles, the field lines get wound up tighter and tighter.

Under this immense stressing, the field lines occasionally break, snap or burst through the surface of the Sun and when they do, we see a sunspot. These dark patches on the visible surface of the Sun are regions where denser concentrations of solar material prohibit heat flow to the visible surface giving rise to slightly cooler, and therefore darker patches on the Sun. 

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A collage of new solar images captured by the Inouye Solar Telescope, which is a small amount of solar data obtained during the Inouye’s first year of operations throughout its commissioning phase. Images include sunspots and quiet regions of the Sun, known as convection cells. (Credit: NSF/AURA/NSO)

The slow rotation of the Sun and the slow but continuous winding up of the field lines means that sun spots become more and more numerous as the field gets more distorted. Observed over a period of years the spots seem to slowly migrate from the polar regions to the equatorial regions as the solar cycle progresses.

To try and help understand this complex cycle and unlock other mysteries of the Sun, the European Space Agency launched its Solar Orbiter on 10 February 2020. Its mission to explore the Sun’s polar regions, understand what drives the 11 year solar cycle and what drives the heating of the corona, the outer layers of the Sun’s atmosphere. 

Solar Orbiter
Solar Orbiter

Images from Solar Orbiter have been released that show closeups of the Sun’s visible surface, the photosphere as it nears peak of solar activity. At the beginning of the cycle, at solar minimum in 2019, there was relatively little activity and only a few sunspots. Since then, things have been slowly increasing. The image from February 2021 showed a reasonably quiet Sun but an image taken in October last year shows that things are, dare I say, hotting up! The maximum of this cycle is expected to occur in 2025 which supports theories that the period of maximum activity could arrive a year earlier.

Understanding the cycle is not just of whimsical scientific interest, it is vital to ensure we minimise damage to ground based and orbiting systems but crucially understand impact on life on Earth.

Source : Sun’s surprising activity surge in Solar Orbiter snapshot

The post Look at How Much the Sun Has Changed in Just Two Years appeared first on Universe Today.

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How to Get a Permit to Backpack Rainier’s Wonderland Trail

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By Michael Lanza

Any backpacker making the substantial effort to hike the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Washington’s Mount Rainier soon discovers why it’s one of the most popular backpacking trips in the country. Those reasons include regularly wading through some of the best wildflower meadows you’ll see anywhere, the numerous waterfalls and raging rivers gray with glacial flour—and the countless times that the most heavily glaciated peak in the Lower 48, 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, suddenly pops into view, looking impossibly massive.

That’s also why few backcountry permits are harder to get than one for the Wonderland—unquestionably one of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and “The 10 Best National Park Backpacking Trips.”

If you want to backpack the Wonderland Trail this year, it’s essential that you know how to navigate the permit-application process and the strategies that can help improve your odds of getting a permit—and the time to start that process is now.

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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-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

Backpackers in Moraine Park on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.
” data-image-caption=”Jeff Wilhelm and Todd Arndt in Moraine Park on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.
” data-medium-file=”″ data-large-file=”″ src=”″ alt=”Backpackers in Moraine Park on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.” class=”wp-image-42741″ style=”width:426px;height:638px” srcset=” 683w, 200w, 768w, 800w” sizes=”(max-width: 683px) 100vw, 683px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />Jeff Wilhelm and Todd Arndt in Moraine Park on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.

This story will explain the procedure for obtaining a permit to backpack Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail and offer tips on how to maximize your chances of success, sharing expertise I’ve acquired from multiple trips on the WT and in Mount Rainier National Park over the past three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.

See my feature story (which requires a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full) about my most-recent trip on much of the WT, a 77-mile route that combines what I consider the trail’s best sections and alternate segments, plus “5 Reasons You Must Backpack Mount
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