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The New Horizons spacecraft that studied Pluto and Kuiper Belt Object Arrokoth continues its pioneering exploration of the Kuiper Belt. However, that might soon end if NASA doesn’t change course. The New Horizons science team has been told by NASA that the mission as they know it is slated to end September 30, 2024.

In response, many in the planetary science community have communicated extreme disapproval of that action to the agency. In addition, the National Space Society launched a petition drive to save the mission and its mission scientists. It’s asking people to sign and show public support to the decision-makers at NASA. The deadline is the end of August.

Interested members of the public can also write to their Congressmembers or Senators directly about the issue. Those representatives can contact NASA administrator Bill Nelson to save the mission and its science team. It’s particularly timely since NASA could require the current team to re-compete for its own mission later in September.

What’s Happening with NASA and New Horizons?

New Horizons is doing science every day as it passes through a never-before-explored region of the Solar System. As we reported earlier this year, a 2022 NASA Senior Review panel praised the mission’s accomplishments. This was in response to a request for ongoing funding from the New Horizons team. The panel noted that, “This is likely the only spacecraft humans will send through the outer Solar System for at least 20-30 years. The investigations proposed are strengthened by the unique position of this asset.”

The review did note some minor concerns. The panel did not conclude that these presented any barrier to moving forward with new funding for the mission to continue its Kuiper Belt exploration after 2024. However, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) had an unexpected response to that review. It decided to solicit input from the larger science community for a new set of objectives. These are focused not on the Kuiper Belt, but on heliophysics explorations of the Sun’s distant environment. Moreover, it mentioned the replacement of the Kuiper Belt New Horizons team with a purely heliophysics team. That team could be selected by NASA in the coming few months.

Such a move would be unprecedented. It’s also puzzling because the mission is already doing heliophysics in the Belt along with all other planned science observations. In fact, in September, the spacecraft will be looking toward Uranus and Neptune. That planetary science study takes advantage of its unique position in the Kuiper Belt.

New Horizons current path as of August 28, 2023. Courtesy: New Horizons Web site.
New Horizons current path as of August 28, 2023. Courtesy: New Horizons Web site.

Planetary Scientists React

These NASA plans are disappointing enough that they spurred a letter of protest from 25 prominent planetary scientists and former NASA officials. Signatories include past Planetary Society board chair Jim Bell, Lori Garver (past Deputy Administrator of NASA), Jim Green (Past Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division), Candice Hansen-Koharcheck (Past chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences and Past Chair of NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group), author Homer Hickham, Wesley T. Huntress (Past Director of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Group), astrophysicist Sir Brian May, Melissa McGrath (past NASA official and AAS Chair of DPS), and many others. They wrote, “As the first and only planned spacecraft exploration of the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons is a jewel in the Nation’s and NASA’s portfolio of space leadership. We the undersigned ask NASA, the Administration, and Congress to reverse course on both of these important matters.”

According to New Horizons mission Principal Investigator, Alan Stern, NASA told the New Horizons team that its mission to the Kuiper Belt will end on September 30, 2024. The agency also communicated its plans to dismiss the legacy New Horizons team. Presumably, it would be replaced or be forced to re-compete to run the mission they’ve planned and run all along.

Stern recently pointed
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Experimental Radar Technique Reveals the Composition of Titan’s Seas

Cassini Titan bistatic schematic 1024x523 1

The Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn generated so much data that giving it a definitive value is impossible. It’s sufficient to say that the amount is vast and that multiple scientific instruments generated it. One of those instruments was a radar designed to see through Titan’s thick atmosphere and catch a scientific glimpse of the moon’s extraordinary surface.

Scientists are still making new discoveries with all this data.

Though Saturn has almost 150 known moons, Titan attracts almost all of the scientific attention. It’s Saturn’s largest moon and the Solar System’s second largest. But Titan’s surface is what makes it stand out. It’s the only object in the Solar System besides Earth with surface liquids.

Cassini’s radar instrument had two basic modes: active and passive. In active mode, it bounced radio waves off surfaces and measured what was reflected back. In passive mode, it measured waves emitted by Saturn and its moons. Both of these modes are called static modes.

But Cassini had a third mode called bistatic mode that saw more limited use. It was experimental and used its Radio Science Subsystem (RSS) to bounce signals off of Titan’s surface. Instead of travelling back to sensors on the spacecraft, the signals were reflected back to Earth, where they were received at one of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DNS) stations. Critically, after bouncing off of Titan’s surface, the signal was split into two, hence the name bistatic.

A team of researchers has used Cassini’s bistatic data to learn more about Titan’s hydrocarbon seas. Their work, “Surface properties of the seas of Titan as revealed by Cassini mission bistatic radar experiments,” has been published in Nature Communications. Valerio Poggiali, a research associate at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, is the lead author.

This schematic shows how Cassini's bistatic radar experiment worked. The orbiter used its Radio Science Subsystem to send signals to Titan's surface. The signals then reflected off of Titan to Earth, where they were received by either the DNS receiver at Canberra, Goldstone, or Madrid. The signals are either Right Circularly Polarized (RCP) or Left Circularly Polarized (LCP.) Image Credit: Poggiali et al. 2024.
This schematic shows how Cassini’s bistatic radar experiment worked. The orbiter used its Radio Science Subsystem to send signals to Titan’s surface. The signals then reflected off Titan to Earth, where they were received by one of the DNS receivers at Canberra, Goldstone, or Madrid. The signals are either Right Circularly Polarized (RCP) or Left Circularly Polarized (LCP). Image Credit: Poggiali et al. 2024.

The signals that reach the DNS are polarized, which reveals more information about the hydrocarbon seas on Titan. While Cassini’s radar instrument revealed how deep the seas are, the bistatic radar data tells researchers about both their compositions and surface textures.

This image of the hydrocarbon seas on Titan is well-known and was radar-imaged by Cassini. That radar data told us how deep the seas are. New bistatic radar data can reveal more about the composition and surface texture of the seas. Image Credit: [JPL-CALTECH/NASA, ASI, USGS]
This image of the hydrocarbon seas on Titan is well-known and was radar-imaged by Cassini. That radar data told us how deep the seas are. New bistatic radar data can reveal more about the composition and surface texture of the seas. Image Credit: [JPL-CALTECH/NASA, ASI, USGS]

“The main difference,” Poggiali said, “is that the bistatic information is
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Webb Measures the Weather on a Tidally Locked Exoplanet

Webb Atmosphere Graphic 1024x663 1

Exploring exoplanet atmospheres in more detail was one task that planetary scientists anticipated during the long wait while the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was in development. Now, their patience is finally paying off. News about discoveries of exoplanet atmosphere using data from JWST seems to be coming from one research group or another almost every week, and this week is no exception. A paper published in Nature by authors from a few dozen institutions describes the atmospheric differences between the “morning” and “evening” sides of a tidally locked planet for the first time.

First, let’s clarify what the “morning” and “evening” sides mean. Tidally locked planets don’t spin, so one hemisphere constantly faces the planet’s star. As such, there is always a part of the planet where it appears to be “morning,” with the star barely peaking over the horizon. Alternatively, there’s a part of the planet where it seems to be “evening,” where the star is again just barely peaking over the horizon, but it would appear to be setting. 

Typically, on Earth, we would think of the morning side as the star peaking over the eastern side, whereas the evening side would see the star setting into the western sky. However, exoplanets sometimes rotate in the opposite direction from planets in our solar system, so that mental model doesn’t always work for them.

Webb Atmosphere Graphic 1024x663 2
The JWST light curve for WASP-34b, clearly showing the dip in the star’s brightness as the planet passes in front of it.
Credit – NASA / ESA / CSA / R. Crawford (STScI)

It’s also important not to confuse the “morning” and “evening” sides with the “day” and “night” sides of the planet. On the day side, the full force of the star affects the planet, but on the night side, the star is never seen at all. The temperature differences on such a planet are massive, and cause much more extreme weather than anything we have experience with in our solar system.

That is the case for WASP-39b, one of the most studied exoplanets. It is a “hot Jupiter” and is roughly 1.3 times the size of the largest planet in our solar system, though it only masses in at about the same size as Saturn. It’s 700 light years away and is tidally locked to its star.

Exoplanet hunters have intently studied this exoplanet since its discovery in 2011. It was the target of JWST’s first exoplanet research when it began science operations. Since then, they’ve made several interesting discoveries, and the Nature paper describes a new one—that the “morning” side of WASP-39b is a few hundred degrees cooler than its “evening” side.

Fraser talks exoplanet atmosphere with expert Dr. Joanna Barstow.

This temperature discrepancy is likely due to atmospheric conditions on the planet itself. The paper’s authors believe there is an extremely strong wind on the planet that runs from day to night at thousands of miles an hour. The wind rotates from the day side through the evening side to the night side, then through the morning side back to the day side.

So, essentially, the morning side receives “air” that has been cooled while traveling through the planet’s night side. However, that air is still a blistering 600 C (1,150 F). The temperature on the evening side, though, is hotter at 800 C (1,450 F), much hotter than any conditions found on any planet in our solar system.

Detecting such a temperature difference on an exoplanet hundred of light years away is an impressive technical feat, and the study’s lead author, Néstor Espinoza, credits JWST’s capabilities for enabling it. The telescope watched the planet both while it was traversing in front of its star, but also while it was next to it and emitting its own, admittedly much fainter, light. 

JWST found methane in a different exoplanet atmosphere, as Fraser describes in this video.

They were differentiating between the starlight filtered through the atmosphere of the planet and when there was no filtered starlight coming through allowed the researchers to make temperature estimates. JWST is so sensitive they were also able to split the data into semi-circles to differentiate the”
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Review: Deuter Aircontact Ultra 50+5 and 45+5 SL Backpacks

Tet19 047 Me on Teton Crest Trail copy cropped 36

Ultralight Backpacks
Deuter Aircontact Ultra 50+5

$250, 55L/3,356 c.i., 2 lbs. 15 oz./1.33kg
Deuter Aircontact Ultra 45+5 SL

$250, 50L/3,051 c.i., 2 lbs. 11 oz./1.21kg

One adjustable size in both models

Aircontact Ultra 50+5: rei.com

Aircontact Ultra 45+5 SL: rei.com

To put Deuter’s updated-for-2024 Aircontact Ultra 50+5 ultralight backpack through the paces, I took it on a pair of quite rugged but also quite different backpacking trips this spring: a three-day hike through southern Utah’s Owl and Fish canyons with a max weight of about 30 pounds in the pack, and six days and about 60 miles backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Gems Route, repeatedly carrying extra water—and starting out with more than 40 pounds inside, including over 10 pounds of water and 11 pounds of food. As I expected, those trips revealed much about the Aircontact Ultra backpacks and why they might appeal to lightweight and ultralight backpackers.

First, I must acknowledge that 40 pounds significantly exceeds Deuter’s recommended max weight for these packs: I knew that but wanted to gauge the Aircontact Ultra’s comfort by exceeding its weight capacity and then seeing when it starts feeling comfortable as my pack weight decreased each day—as I sometimes do with packs in this weight class because, almost inevitably, many backpackers overload ultralight packs at the outset of a trip, or at various points during a long-distance hike, accepting a day or more of compromised comfort for the benefit of having a pack that’s lighter and will be adequately comfortable for most of the trip. I’ve done that countless times.

Tet19 047 Me on Teton Crest Trail copy cropped 37
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 Deuter Aircontact Ultra 50+5 harness.
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” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/07/11121334/Deuter-Aircontact-Ultra-505-harness.jpg?fit=200%2C300&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/07/11121334/Deuter-Aircontact-Ultra-505-harness.jpg?fit=683%2C1024&ssl=1″ tabindex=”0″ role=”button” src=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/07/11121334/Deuter-Aircontact-Ultra-505-harness-683×1024.jpg?resize=683%2C1024&ssl=1″ alt=”The Deuter Aircontact Ultra 50+5 harness.” class=”wp-image-63988″ style=”aspect-ratio:0.6671875;width:488px;height:auto” srcset=”https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/07/11121334/Deuter-Aircontact-Ultra-505-harness.jpg 683w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/07/11121334/Deuter-Aircontact-Ultra-505-harness.jpg 200w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/07/11121334/Deuter-Aircontact-Ultra-505-harness.jpg 768w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/07/11121334/Deuter-Aircontact-Ultra-505-harness.jpg 150w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/07/11121334/Deuter-Aircontact-Ultra-505-harness.jpg 800w” sizes=”(max-width: 683px) 100vw, 683px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />The Deuter Aircontact Ultra 50+5 harness.

In the Grand Canyon, having more than 40 pounds/18.1 kilos in the Aircontact Ultra 50+5 was certainly not “comfortable.” But nor was it all that bad. On that first day, we backpacked about six miles of rough dirt road just to reach the South Bass Trailhead, and then descended the often steep, loose, and rugged South Bass Trail for some 3,400 feet before
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