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Getting data in from deep space can be difficult. Almost all of our missions that have flown into deep space use the Deep Space Network, a system of transmitters and receivers that already imposes constraints on the amount of data we can transfer from the far reaches of space. So a team led by Joshua Vander Hook, then at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and now at a start-up called Outrider.ai, came up with a way to dramatically enhance the throughput of the DSN. In so doing, they gave it a very catchy name – the Solar System Pony Express.

Dr. Vander Hook was initially supported by a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) grant in 2021. The basic concept utilizes what is known as a “cycler” orbit, where a spacecraft repeatedly orbits between two bodies in the solar system using their gravity wells to swing around in sync with when their orbits pass each other. 

In this case, the spacecraft would consist of a communications relay module that would collect high-throughput data from an observer module parked in orbit around the other body. The observer module would consistently download data from the missions operating in its local area and then, when a relay module gets close, would rapidly send all of that data to the cycling spacecraft. The cycler then returns to Earth, where another rapid download process begins, and the cycle repeats itself.

Fraser discusses some of the problems of communicating with deep space probes – especially those going to other stars.

That sounds like the Pony Express – a system in the 1800s whereby mail carriers would ride physical ponies (or horses) to deliver mail occasionally to remote outposts in the American West. In another homage to that mail carrier heritage, the team named the cycling relay satellites “data mules.”

Those data mules would have a long trip between Earth and their target destination. It might come as no surprise that in much of the literature surrounding the idea that the target destination was Mars. Buzz Aldrin, the most famous proponent of cycler orbits, suggested that cycler “castles” could effectively shuttle people and goods between Mars and Earth. But in this new configuration, instead of physical things, it would be more beneficial to ship data.

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Another Depiction of how the observer / data mule interaction would go.
Credit – Marc Sanchez-Net et al.

Calculations described in a paper released last year estimate that with as little as six data mules, the network could provide a bandwidth of 1 petabyte a year from the surface of Mars while only requiring a minor allocation of time on the DSN. That would potentially allow some real-time high-definition video from the red planet, which would undoubtedly be attractive to many of the inhabitants of its nearest neighbor.

However, such high data rates come at a cost. In the case of the Solar System Pony Express, that cost is latency. The high throughput data transfer possible between the observer and a data mule, and then again from the data mule back to a receiving station on Earth, is only possible if they are in physical proximity to each other, as the network would use a type of high-throughput optical communications network. And since cycler orbits can take years, it would be years after the data was collected on the red planet that anyone could use it.

That is not a show stopper – indeed, many people would be okay with waiting for over a year for a high-definition video from Mars if that is the only way for them to see it. But it makes funding such a mission more difficult given the immediate feedback culture prevalent in many of today’s media. Give the authors credit, though – they recognize this limitation and, as all good scientists do, mention that it would be a good topic for further study.

For right now, that further study seems to be on hold. Dr. Vander Hook has moved on to other non-space-related efforts. While there has been some interest from researchers elsewhere, such as a paper from the University of Illinois, there’s currently no clear path forward for the project. But, there will always be a desire for more data transfer from farther out in the solar system. If the Pony Express is the most cost-effective way to get it at the beginning of our explorations, then don’t be surprised if this concept is resurrected sometime in the future.

Learn More:
Pascarella et al – Low-thrust trajectory optimization for the solar system pony
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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. 

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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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