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In the latest chapter of “The Mystery of the Lunar Swirls,” planetary scientists have a new theory to explain these odd markings on the Moon’s surface. It invokes underground magmas and strange magnetic anomalies.

Lunar swirls are sinuous features that appear much lighter than the surrounding landscape. They extend for hundreds of kilometers and nobody’s quite sure why they exist. No astronaut has visited one of these weird regions, but that hasn’t stopped scientists from speculating based on images and magnetic field measurements. “Impacts could cause these types of magnetic anomalies,” said Michael J. Krawczynski, an associate professor of earth, environmental, and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Krawczynski points out that meteorites supply iron-rich material to areas on the Moon’s surface. However, these swirls exist in regions that aren’t necessarily disturbed by meteorites. So, what else could explain the swirls?

“Another theory is that you have lavas underground, cooling slowly in a magnetic field and creating the magnetic anomaly,” said Krawczynski, who, along with post-doctoral student Yuanyuan Liang, designed experiments to test this explanation. They measured the effects of different atmospheric chemistries and magmatic cooling rates on a mineral called ilmenite and found that under certain conditions, cooling subsurface lavas could be causing the ghostly lunar swirls.

Using Earth-based Geological Principles to Understand Lunar Swirls

Despite the fact that more than a dozen people have walked on the Moon, nobody visited a lunar swirl or picked up samples of their dust. That left Earth-bound planetary scientists to use Earth analogs for Moon rocks to understand lunar magnetism. “Earth rocks are very easily magnetized because they often have tiny bits of magnetite in them, which is a magnetic mineral,” Krawczynski said. “A lot of the terrestrial studies that have focused on things with magnetite are not applicable to the Moon, where you don’t have this hyper-magnetic mineral.”

So, the research team turned to ilmenite as their test material. It’s a titanium-oxide mineral with a weak magnetic signal. Ilmenite exists all over the Moon. It readily reacts to form magnetizable iron metal particles. “The smaller grains that we were working with seemed to create stronger magnetic fields because the surface area to volume ratio is larger for the smaller grains compared to the larger grains,” Liang said. “With more exposed surface area, it is easier for the smaller grains to undergo the reduction reaction.”

A sample of ilmenite found in Norway. This is the mineral tested to simulate subsurface magma on the Moon. CC-BY-SA 3.0 Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com
A sample of ilmenite found in Norway. This is the mineral tested to simulate subsurface magma on the Moon. CC-BY-SA 3.0 Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com

Interestingly, planetary scientists have seen a similar reaction creating iron metal in lunar meteorites in samples from the Apollo missions. The difference, however, is that those samples came from surface lava flows. Krawczynski and Liang’s study focused on the types of magma that cooled underground.

“Our analog experiments showed that at lunar conditions, we could create the magnetizable material that we needed. So, it’s plausible that these swirls are caused by subsurface magma,” said Krawczynski. “If you’re going to make magnetic anomalies by the methods we studied, then the underground magma needs to have high titanium.”

Why Study Swirls on the Moon?

Those mysterious dust patterns aren’t just there by accident. They contain clues to the processes that shaped the lunar surface. In addition, if magnetism is involved in their formation, that says something about magnetism on the Moon as a whole.

Until astronauts can get to the Moon to study these swirls for themselves, the ilmenite experiment offers a good way to test the underground magma idea from afar, according to Krawczynski. Of course, it would be nice to get actual samples of underground rocks on the Moon, but that’s going to have to wait. “If we could just drill down, we could see if this reaction was happening,” he said. “That would be great, but it’s not possible yet. Right now, we’re stuck with the surface.”

Artist’s impression of the Lunar Vertex rover on the surface of the
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Gaia Hit by a Micrometeoroid AND Caught in a Solar Storm

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For over ten years, the ESA’s Gaia Observatory has monitored the proper motion, luminosity, temperature, and composition of over a billion stars throughout our Milky Way galaxy and beyond. This data will be used to construct the largest and most precise 3D map of the cosmos ever made and provide insight into the origins, structure, and evolutionary history of our galaxy. Unfortunately, this sophisticated astrometry telescope is positioned at the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange Point, far beyond the protection of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetosphere.

As a result, Gaia has experienced two major hazards in recent months that could endanger the mission. These included a micrometeoroid impact in April that disrupted some of Gaia‘s very sensitive sensors. This was followed by a solar storm in May—the strongest in 20 years—that caused electrical problems for the mission. These two incidents could threaten Gaia‘s ability to continue mapping stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars, and other objects in the Universe until its planned completion date of 2025.

Micrometeroids are a common problem at the L2 Lagrange Point, roughly 1.5 million km (932,057 mi) from Earth, so engineers designed Gaia with a protective cover. Unfortunately, the particle was traveling at a very high velocity and struck the cover at precisely the wrong angle, causing a breach. This has allowed stray sunlight to interfere with Gaia’s ability to simultaneously collect light from so many distant stars. Gaia‘s engineering team was addressing this issue the moment the solar storm hit, adding electrical issues to their list of problems.

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Gaia’s all-sky view of our Milky Way Galaxy and neighboring galaxies, based on measurements of nearly 1.7 billion stars. Credit: ESA

Mission controllers first noticed signs of disruption in May when Gaia began registering thousands of false detections. They soon realized that this may have been due to the solar storm that began on May 11th, which could have caused one of the spacecraft’s charge-coupled devices (CCDs) to fail, which converts light gathered by Gaia’s billion-pixel camera into electronic signals. The observatory relies on 106 CCDs, each playing a different role. The affected sensor was vital for Gaia’s ability to confirm the detection of stars and validate its observations.

While the spacecraft was built to withstand radiation, it has been operating in space for almost twice as long as originally planned (6 years) and may have been pushed to its limits. As Edmund Serpell, Gaia spacecraft operations engineer at ESOC, explained in an ESA press release:

“Gaia typically sends over 25 gigabytes of data to Earth every day, but this amount would be much, much higher if the spacecraft’s onboard software didn’t eliminate false star detections first. Both recent incidents disrupted this process. As a result, the spacecraft began generating a huge number of false detections that overwhelmed our systems. We cannot physically repair the spacecraft from 1.5 million km away. However, by carefully modifying the threshold at which Gaia’s software identifies a faint point of light as a star, we have been able to dramatically reduce the number of false detections generated by both the straylight and CCD issues.”

Meanwhile, the Gaia teams at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC), and the European Space Astronomy Center (ESAC) have spent the past few months investigating these problems. They have also worked closely with engineers from Airbus Defence and Space (the spacecraft’s manufacturer) and payload experts at the Data Processing and Analysis Consortium. Thanks to their efforts, the GaiaObservatory recently returned to regular operations.

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Mountain Lakes of the Wind River Range—A Photo Gallery

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By Michael Lanza

We followed the Doubletop Mountain Trail as it rolled over open plateau country above 10,000 feet in the Wind River Range, crossing one gorgeous lake basin after another where wildflowers still carpeted the ground in the week before Labor Day. In the distance, peaks along the Continental Divide soared to over 13,000 feet, jabbing at the underbellies of clouds. Turning onto the Highline Trail, we reached an unnamed tarn in late afternoon and walked beyond it to a flat, broad bench overlooking a meadow and lake below a pair of huge towers, 12,119-foot Sky Pilot Peak and 12,224-foot Mount Oeneis. It was a serendipitous find to make our home for the night.

But the real magic arrived the next morning, when nature served up a perfect stew of conditions—calm air, dappled light, still water, and a stunning backdrop—to create a scene that validates carrying all the weight on your back for days (and makes for a pretty good photo, above).

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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.

Washakie Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.
” data-image-caption=”Sunset light over Washakie Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/05/01072631/Wind9-45-Washakie-Lake-in-the-Wind-River-Range-WY.jpg?fit=300%2C200&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/05/01072631/Wind9-45-Washakie-Lake-in-the-Wind-River-Range-WY.jpg?fit=900%2C600&ssl=1″ tabindex=”0″ role=”button” src=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/05/01072631/Wind9-45-Washakie-Lake-in-the-Wind-River-Range-WY-1024×683.jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1″ alt=”Washakie Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.” class=”wp-image-63052″ srcset=”https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/05/01072631/Wind9-45-Washakie-Lake-in-the-Wind-River-Range-WY.jpg 1024w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/05/01072631/Wind9-45-Washakie-Lake-in-the-Wind-River-Range-WY.jpg 300w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/05/01072631/Wind9-45-Washakie-Lake-in-the-Wind-River-Range-WY.jpg 768w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/05/01072631/Wind9-45-Washakie-Lake-in-the-Wind-River-Range-WY.jpg 150w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/05/01072631/Wind9-45-Washakie-Lake-in-the-Wind-River-Range-WY.jpg 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />Sunset light over Washakie Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.

I first began exploring Wyoming’s Wind River Range about 30 years ago and have returned many times since, drawn back again and again by its almost bottomless well of adventure potential. In that time, I’ve learned about the many reasons to walk for days through the Winds, which exist in the deep shadow of Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks just a couple of hours to the north—a state of relative anonymity that many backpackers celebrate. Its lack of national park status and sheer vastness enable a high degree of solitude for backpackers willing to make the considerable effort (and take the time) to explore more deeply into the range, which extends for nearly 100 miles north to south.

And few mountain ranges match the grandiosity of the Wind River Range. The Colorado Rockies and High Sierra reach greater heights and I would include both among the handful of
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SpaceX Reveals the Beefed-Up Dragon That Will De-Orbit the ISS

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The International Space Station (ISS) has been continuously orbiting Earth for more than 25 years and has been visited by over 270 astronauts, cosmonauts, and commercial astronauts. In January 2031, a special spacecraft designed by SpaceX – aka. The U.S. Deorbit Vehicle – will lower the station’s orbit until it enters our atmosphere and lands in the South Pacific. On July 17th, NASA held a live press conference where it released details about the process, including a first glance at the modified SpaceX Dragon responsible for deorbiting the ISS.

As usual, the company shared details about the press conference and an image of the special Dragon via their official X account (formerly Twitter). As they indicated, SpaceX will deploy a modified spacecraft that will have six times the propellant and four times the power of “their “today’s Dragon spacecraft.” The image shows that the U.S. Deorbit Vehicle will have a robust service module in place of the trunk used by the standard Crew Dragon vehicle. This module is larger and has additional fold-out solar arrays in addition to hull-mounted solar panels.

With 6x more propellant and 4x the power of today’s Dragon spacecraft, SpaceX was selected to design and develop the U.S. Deorbit Vehicle for a precise, controlled deorbit of the @Space_Station https://t.co/GgtuplTwqQ pic.twitter.com/E23sS7CE4U

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) July 17, 2024

It also appears to have more Draco engines than the standard Crew Dragon vehicle – which has 18 engines capable of generating 400 Newtons (90 lbf) each – for a total of 7,200 N (360 lbf) of thrust. Presumably, this means the U.S. Deorbit Vehicle will have 72 Draco thrusters (arranged concentrically) and be capable of generating close to 30,000 Newtons (1,440 lbf) of thrust. The image also shows the spacecraft docking with the Kibo module operated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

NASA announced the selection of SpaceX in late June to develop the vehicle as part of a single-award contract with a total potential value of $843 million. While SpaceX is responsible for developing the spacecraft, NASA will take ownership once it is complete and operate it throughout the mission. Both the spacecraft and ISS are expected to break up during re-entry, and the remains will land in the “spacecraft cemetery” in the South Pacific. The contract for the launch services has not yet been awarded but is expected to be announced shortly.

SpaceX is also responsible for developing the Human Landing System (HLS) – the Starship HLS – that will transport astronauts to the lunar surface as part of the Artemis III and IV missions. SpaceX has also been contracted to launch the core elements of the Lunar Gateway – the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) – into lunar orbit using a Falcon Heavy rocket in November 2025.

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The International Space Station (ISS) in orbit. Credit: NASA

Since 1998, the ISS has served as a unique scientific platform where crew members from five space agencies – including NASA, the Canadian Space Agency), the European Space Agency (ESA), JAXA, and the Russian State Space Corporation (Roscosmos). During its operational lifetime, crew members have performed experiments ranging from the effects of microgravity and space radiation on human, animal, and plant physiology. This research will play a vital role as NASA and its international partners conduct long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars in the coming decades.

The station has also allowed for extensive research into space science, biology, the physical sciences, and technology demonstrations that are not possible on Earth. Above all, the ISS has served as a symbol of international cooperation, consistent with the Outer Space Treaty and its core philosophy of “space is for all.” NASA, the CSA, the ESA, and JAXA have all committed to operating the station through 2030, while Roscomos has committed to continue operations until 2028 at least. The safe deorbit of the ISS is the responsibility of all five space agencies.

Further
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