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Normally you don’t want dust to get into your spacecraft. That was certainly true for the InSight mission to Mars, until it died. Now, however, it’s acting as a dust collector, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) scientists couldn’t be happier.

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) onboard MRO monitors and images the surface. In particular, it has been imaging landing sites on Mars to track dust accumulation on the surface. The idea is to see how quickly the landers and their nearby environments get covered. It doesn’t just focus on landing sites, though. It also checks places like impact craters to track surface changes in and around those regions. As you can see from its latest image above, taken on April 1st, 2024, it’s getting tough to spot the InSIGHT lander thanks to ever-growing accumulations of dust.

Monitoring Surface Changes on Mars

HiRISE has been checking in on the InSIGHT lander ever since it first deployed on Mars. Early images show the hardware in fairly good detail right after landing. Then, over time, as Martian winds take their toll, it’s obvious the spacecraft is getting coated in dust. That’s also true of other spacecraft that HiRISE images from time to time.

The best image of the InSight lander taken by HiRISE in 2019. HiRISE scientists were looking for dust devil tracks and other changes in the surface due to dust.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UArizona
The best image of the InSight lander taken by HiRISE in 2019. HiRISE scientists were looking for dust devil tracks and other changes in the surface due to dust. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UArizona

Why care about dust? Although we know a great deal about Mars, there’s still a lot to figure out. Wind deposition of dust is part of the so-called aeolian processes that alter the Martian surface appearance. They’re named after the Greek wind god Aeolus. Dust storms are certainly visible on Mars from Earth, but we can’t really “see” their deposits easily without getting close to (or on) the planet. Other activities, such as dust devils, also redistribute dust around the planet. All this activity creates wind streaks, sand, and dust deposits, and covers up spacecraft on the surface.

The study of the aeolian process is one of the HiRISE instrument’s major science themes. There’s not much water action to change the surface. Nor is there any Martian volcanic activity to muck up the landscape. Impact craters do tear up the surface, but they aren’t frequent. That leaves aeolian activity as a major player in Mars surface changes. Image after image shows dunes, ripples, wind streaks, dust devil tracks, and other features created by the winds. The HiRISE imaging project gives a “wide-angle” view of aeolian effects on the Red Planet and how its various surface units change over time.

InSight’s Future on Mars

The InSight lander performed almost flawlessly during its four years in operation on Mars. Although one of its instruments, the “mole” had some difficulties performing its digging action, the mission as a whole was quite successful. The seismograph monitored Marsquakes throughout the mission, which gives details about the Martian interior. It also differentiated between quakes from Mars’s interior and those caused by impacts. The spacecraft other instruments sampled the remnants of the weak magnetic field and monitored the Martian weather.

The InSight lander not only measured seismic motions on Mars, but also sampled the atmosphere and listened to its winds. Courtesy: NASA/JPL.

As increasing levels of dust covered InSight’s solar panels, mission scientists had to power down many of its systems. The seismometer was the last one to be shut off. The spacecraft was officially considered “dead” after mission controllers didn’t hear from it after two attempts at communication. The last time anybody heard from it was December 15, 2022.

These days, although the instruments are silent and the solar panels are dead, the spacecraft is passively
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Bear Essentials: How to Store Food When Backcountry Camping

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By Michael Lanza

On our first night in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park on one of my earliest backpacking trips, two friends and I—all complete novices—hung our food from a tree branch near our camp. Unfortunately, the conifer trees around us all had short branches: Our food stuff sacks hung close to the trunk.

During the night, the predictable happened: We awoke to the sound of a black bear clawing up the tree after our food.

Despite our nervousness and incompetence, we somehow managed to shoo that black bear off, though not before he (or she) departed with a respectable haul from our food supply. But by virtue of having started out with way more food than we needed—another rookie mistake that, ironically, compensated for this more-serious rookie mistake (read my tips on not overpacking)—we made it through that hike without going hungry and ultimately had a wonderful adventure.

And we went home with a valuable lesson learned.

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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.

A black bear along the Sol Duc River Trail in Olympic National Park.
” data-image-caption=”A black bear along the Sol Duc River Trail in Olympic National Park.
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/06232206/Olym6-070-Black-bear-Sol-Duc-River-Trail-Olympic-NP-WA-2.jpg?fit=300%2C201&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/06232206/Olym6-070-Black-bear-Sol-Duc-River-Trail-Olympic-NP-WA-2.jpg?fit=900%2C602&ssl=1″ tabindex=”0″ role=”button” src=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/06232206/Olym6-070-Black-bear-Sol-Duc-River-Trail-Olympic-NP-WA-2-1024×685.jpg?resize=900%2C602&ssl=1″ alt=”A black bear along the Sol Duc River Trail in Olympic National Park.” class=”wp-image-34782″ srcset=”https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/06232206/Olym6-070-Black-bear-Sol-Duc-River-Trail-Olympic-NP-WA-2.jpg 1024w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/06232206/Olym6-070-Black-bear-Sol-Duc-River-Trail-Olympic-NP-WA-2.jpg 300w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/06232206/Olym6-070-Black-bear-Sol-Duc-River-Trail-Olympic-NP-WA-2.jpg 768w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/06232206/Olym6-070-Black-bear-Sol-Duc-River-Trail-Olympic-NP-WA-2.jpg 1080w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/06232206/Olym6-070-Black-bear-Sol-Duc-River-Trail-Olympic-NP-WA-2.jpg 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />A black bear along the Sol Duc River Trail in Olympic National Park.

I’ve learned much more about storing food properly in the backcountry over the more than three decades since that early trip, including the 10 years I spent as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. This article shares what I’ve learned about protecting food from critters like bears and, more commonly, mice and other small animals and some birds like ravens.

Follow the tips below and you’ll not only save yourself and your party or family from going hungry, you might save a bear from developing a habit of seeing humans as sources of food, which too often leads to a bad outcome for that animal.

If you have any questions or tips of your own to share, please do so in the comments section at the bottom of this
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The Rugged Desert Moss Best Equipped to Survive on Mars

Mars

For decades, we have seen Mars as a desolate landscape devoid of any signs of life. Attempt to identify ways of growing plants and food on the red planet have focussed on greenhouse like structures to enable plants to survive, that is, until now! A desert moss called ‘Syntrichia caninervis’ has been identified and it can grown in extreme environments like Antarctica and the Mojave Desert. A new study revealed the moss can survive Mars-like environments too including low temperatures, high levels of radiation and drought. 

Mars has often be referred to as the “Red Planet” for its distinct red hue. It is the fourth planet from the Sun and to some extent resembles the Earth. Polar ice caps, seasonal weather patterns, extinct volcanoes, ancient riverbeds and flood plains are among the many surface features and. This cold world has fascinated us for centuries and its thin atmosphere, mostly made up of carbon dioxide, has been subjected to lots of studies. It has been thought for many years that it experiences some of the harshest weather conditions, including planet-wide dust storms but the recent study suggests there may just be a plant on Earth capable of surviving these conditions. 

Mars 1
Mars, Credit NASA

Exploring and colonising planets like Mars can enhance human sustainability. Since no life forms have been found on Mars, introducing Earth organisms might be necessary for creating suitable conditions for human life in a process known as terraforming. This will involve selecting or engineering plants that can thrive in the harsh environments of an alien world. Few studies have tested organisms’ ability to withstand extreme environments of space or Mars, focusing mainly on microorganisms, algae, and lichens. However until recently, studies including mosses and whole plants have been lacking.

There have been many long term plans and even whimsical ideas to establish settlements on Mars. Pivotal to the success is the establishment of adapted crops that can grow in controlled, synthetic environments. However, to develop such a plant requires significant progress and development before plants are capable of growing in the soils and harsh conditions. In the report by lead author Xiaoshuang Li and team the incredible resilience of a moss called Syntrichia caninervis (S. caninervis) to survive a Mars-like environment even after having lost more than 98% of its water content.

Studies into the resilience of the plants have shown they can withstand extremely low temperatures and regenerate even after being stored in a freezer at -80°C for five years or in liquid nitrogen for one month. S. caninervis also demonstrates high resistance to gamma radiation and can survive in simulated Martian conditions.

The study concluded that S. caninervis is among the most stress-tolerant organisms known. It shows how it is a real potential species for the colonisation of alien worlds like Mars. The resilience to extreme conditions such as desiccation, low temperatures, and high radiation makes it an ideal for future terraforming efforts. It helps to understand the unique properties of this moss (in particular) and how it can form a foundational layer for biologically sustainable human habitats in space.

Source : The extremotolerant desert moss Syntrichia caninervis is a promising pioneer plant for colonizing extraterrestrial environments

The post The Rugged Desert Moss Best Equipped to Survive on Mars appeared first on Universe Today.

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Do Planets Have the Raw Ingredients for Life? The Answer is in their Stars

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Finding planets that already have, or have the ingredients for intelligent life is a real challenge. It is exciting that new telescopes and spacecraft are in development that will start to identify candidate planets. Undertaking these observations will take significant amounts of telescope time so we need to find some way to prioritise which ones to look at first. A new paper has been published that suggests we can study the host stars first for the necessary raw elements giving a more efficient way to hunt for similar worlds to Earth. 

Exoplanets are planets that orbit stars outside our solar system. They have been identified in the thousands since the first discovery in 1992, totalling currently 5,288. They vary widely in size, composition, and orbit, ranging from gas giants like Jupiter to rocky, potentially habitable planets similar to Earth. Advanced telescopes and detection methods like the transit and radial velocity techniques have enabled the discovery of Earth-sized exoplanets. Their study not only enhances our understanding of planetary formation and evolution but also the search for extraterrestrial life. 

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This illustration shows what the hot rocky exoplanet TRAPPIST-1 b could look like. A new method can help determine what rocky exoplanets might have large reservoirs of subsurface water. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, J. Olmsted (STScI)

The search for extraterrestrial life is no easy feat. Looking for aliens or at least environments where extraterrestrial life could one day evolve means knowing what to look for. To star with we can assume life has three basic requirements; I) building block elements (i.e., CHNOPS – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous and sulphur,) II) a solvent to life’s reactions (generally, liquid water) and III) a thermodynamic disequilibrium. It is assumed that similar requirements might be universal in the Cosmos. There is of course a chance of life based on a completely different set of needs but if we are going to start somewhere then we may as well start looking for life like that found on Earth, otherwise well, who knows what to look for!

Life on Earth can gain energy from a wide range of different thermodynamic disequilibria, a great example is life that thrives at the bottom of the ocean, taking energy and indeed nutrients from thermal vents. More widely it relies upon chemical reactions where the an electron is lost or gained changing its oxidation state. This is known as redox disequilibrium. Each reaction requires special proteins called oxidoreductases. The process requires metals as catalysts and without them, the process is unable to progress. 

hydrothermal vent
A black smoker hydrothermal vent discovered in the Atlantic Ocean in 1979. It’s fueled from deep beneath the surface by magma that superheats the water. The plume carries minerals and other materials out to the sea. Courtesy USGS.

The distribution of these metals (which are more accurately known as transition metals) in the Universe varies significantly over time and space. Despite this wide ranging distribution across the cosmos, the role of these metals in enabling life has been largely overlooked in identifying astrobiological targets. The paper published by Giovanni Covone and Donato Giovannelli propose that the presence of certain elements is essential for
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