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To date, a total of 4,884 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,659 systems, with another 8,414 additional candidates awaiting confirmation. In the course of studying these new worlds, astronomers have noted something very interesting about the “rocky” planets. Since Earth is rocky and the only known planet where life can exist, astronomers are naturally curious about this particular type of planet. Interestingly, most of the rocky planets discovered so far have been many times the size and mass of Earth.

Of the 1,702 rocky planets confirmed to date, the majority (1,516) have been “Super-Earths,” while only 186 have been similar in size and mass to Earth. This raises the question: is Earth an outlier, or do we not have enough data yet to determine how common “Earth-like” planets are. According to new research by an international team led by Rice University, it may all have to do with protoplanetary rings of dust and gas in an early solar system.

The team consisted of researchers from the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences (EEPS) at Rice University, Houston, Texas. They were joined by astrophysicists from the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Bordeaux (LAB), the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, and the Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Heidelberg, Germany. Their findings were shared in a paper that recently appeared in the journal Nature Astronomy.

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This spectacular image from the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope is the first clear image of a planet caught in the very act of formation around the dwarf star PDS 70. Credit: ESO/A. Müller et al.

Solar System Architecture

According to the most widely-accepted theories of planetary formation (Nebular Hypothesis), solar systems begin as clouds of dust and gas. In time, this cloud will begin to swirl and coalesce to the point that it will undergo gravitational collapse at the center and give birth to a new sun. The remaining nebular material will settle into rotating rings due to the star’s angular momentum, which will slowly accrete to form planetesimals (and eventually planets).

These rings will typically have gap-like structures in them, which will profoundly impact the orbits of future planets. As the Rice team theorized, something happened during this period in the Solar System’s history to prevent Earth from growing to become a Super-Earth. Rice University astrophysicist André Izidoro, who led the research, explained in a Rice University press release:

“If super-Earths are super-common, why don’t we have one in the solar system? We propose that pressure bumps produced disconnected reservoirs of disk material in the inner and outer solar system and regulated how much material was available to grow planets in the inner solar system.”

According to precious models of planetary formation, protoplanetary disks become less dense as a function of distance from the star. However, computer simulations have shown that planets are unlikely to form in a smooth disk. “In a smooth disk, all solid particles — dust grains or boulders — should be drawn inward very quickly and lost in the star,” said Andrea Isella, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Rice and a co-author on the study. “One needs something to stop them in order to give them time to grow into planets.”

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A Planetary Disk in the Orion Nebula is Destroying and Replenishing Oceans of Water Every Month

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Planet-forming disks are places of chaotic activity. Not only do planetesimals slam together to form larger worlds, but it now appears that the process involves the destructive recycling of water within a disk. That’s the conclusion from scientists studying JWST data from a planetary birth crèche called d203-506 in the Orion Nebula.

The data they studied suggest that an amount of water equivalent to all of Earth’s oceans is created and replenished in a relatively short period—about a month. According to study co-lead Els Peeters at Western University in Canada, it was relatively easy to discover this process in the protoplanetary disk. “This discovery was based on a tiny fraction of our spectroscopic data,” she said. “It is exciting that we have so much more data to mine and I can’t wait to see what else we can find.”

The Orion Nebula is a vast active star- and planet-forming region and the d203-506 protoplanetary disk lies within it at a distance of about 1,350 light-years away from Earth. Astronomers study the nebula to understand all aspects of star birth since there are so many newborn stars there. In addition, many are surrounded by disks of gas and dust, called protoplanetary disks (proplyds, for short). Those regions are excellent places to observe planet-formation processes, and particularly the interplay between the young stars and their disks.

The Orion Nebula, one of the most studied objects in the sky. It's likely that many of its protostars and their planetary disks contain water in some form. Image: NASA
The Orion Nebula is one of the most studied objects in the sky. Many of its protostars and their planetary disks likely contain water in some form. Image: NASA

The Water Cycle of a Proplyd

We all know that water is an important ingredient for life. It certainly played a role in creating and sustaining life on our planet. As it turns out, water is a significant fraction of the materials in a proplyd. In the infant Solar System, water existed throughout our proplyd long before any of the planets formed, largely in their icy form, either as icy bodies or locked into asteroids and planetesimals. It also exists in interstellar space.

This view of Earth’s horizon was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station, using a wide-angle lens while the Station was over the Pacific Ocean. A new study suggests that Earth's water didn't all come from comets, but likely also came from water-rich planetesimals.  Credit: NASA
This view of Earth’s horizon by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station. A new study suggests that Earth’s water didn’t all come from comets, but likely also came from water-rich planetesimals. Credit: NASA

Most of Earth’s water got delivered to the forming planet over millions of years. It melted or outgassed to form the oceans, rivers, and lakes we see today. But, some fraction of the water in our system’s birth disk probably went through a “freeze-thaw” cycle within the disk. That happened when the Solar System was still just a disk of gas and dust. The water was essentially destroyed and then re-formed at higher temperatures.

We can’t see that effect anymore in our system. But, astronomers can point telescopes at other proplyds to see if the same process happens there. That’s what Peeters and her team did. They used JWST to look at d203-506. There, bright young stars flood the nearby regions in the proplyd with intense ultraviolet radiation. The UV breaks up water molecules to form hydroxyl molecules and that process also releases infrared light. JWST can search out that light and report back on how much hydroxyl
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The 12 Best Hikes in Utah’s National Parks

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By Michael Lanza

From natural arches, hoodoos, and hanging gardens to balanced rocks and towering mesas, slot canyons and vast chasms, the desert Southwest holds in its dry, searing, lonely open spaces some of America’s most fascinating and inspiring geology. The writer “Cactus Ed” Abbey no doubt had this region in mind when he said there “are some places so beautiful they can make a grown man break down and weep.” Much of it sits protected within southern Utah’s five national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef.

The good news? Many of the best sights can be reached on dayhikes of anywhere from a couple hours to a full day.

A hiker below the Wall of Windows on the Peek-a-Boo Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park.
” data-image-caption=”Cyndi Hayes hiking below the Wall of Windows on the Peek-a-Boo Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park.
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Bryce2-013-Wall-of-Windows-Peek-a-Boo-loop-Bryce-Canyon-UT.jpg?fit=300%2C199&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Bryce2-013-Wall-of-Windows-Peek-a-Boo-loop-Bryce-Canyon-UT.jpg?fit=900%2C598&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Bryce2-013-Wall-of-Windows-Peek-a-Boo-loop-Bryce-Canyon-UT.jpg?resize=900%2C598&ssl=1″ alt=”A hiker below the Wall of Windows on the Peek-a-Boo Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park.” class=”wp-image-43917″ srcset=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Bryce2-013-Wall-of-Windows-Peek-a-Boo-loop-Bryce-Canyon-UT.jpg?resize=1024%2C680&ssl=1 1024w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Bryce2-013-Wall-of-Windows-Peek-a-Boo-loop-Bryce-Canyon-UT.jpg?resize=300%2C199&ssl=1 300w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Bryce2-013-Wall-of-Windows-Peek-a-Boo-loop-Bryce-Canyon-UT.jpg?resize=768%2C510&ssl=1 768w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Bryce2-013-Wall-of-Windows-Peek-a-Boo-loop-Bryce-Canyon-UT.jpg?w=1200&ssl=1 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />Cyndi Hayes hiking below the Wall of Windows on the Peek-a-Boo Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park.
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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.

The list below of the best dayhikes in southern Utah’s national parks derives from numerous trips I’ve made to each of these parks over the past three decades, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. Use my list as your compass, and I guarantee you will knock off the best hikes in these parks.

I’d love to read your thoughts about my list—and your suggestions for dayhikes that belong on it. Please share them in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments, and as I continue to explore more trails, I will regularly update this story.

A teenage boy hiking Angels Landing, Zion National Park.
” data-image-caption=”My son, Nate, hiking Angels Landing in Zion National Park.
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Zion5-015-Angels-Landing-Zion-National-Park.-copy.-copy.jpg?fit=300%2C200&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Zion5-015-Angels-Landing-Zion-National-Park.-copy.-copy.jpg?fit=900%2C600&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Zion5-015-Angels-Landing-Zion-National-Park.-copy.-copy.jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1″ alt=”A teenage boy hiking Angels Landing, Zion National Park.” class=”wp-image-35512″ srcset=”https://i0.wp
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The View From Mount St. Helens, One of America’s Best Hikes

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By Michael Lanza

Four decades after it last erupted, Washington’s Mount St. Helens has become one of the most sought-after summits in the country—for good reason. Hikers on the standard Monitor Ridge route, on the mountain’s south side, emerge soon from the shady, cool, temperate rainforest onto a stark, gray and black moonscape of volcanic rocks, pumice, and ash, with little vegetation and sweeping views of the Cascade Mountains, including several other snow-covered volcanoes. The views could steal the breath from God.

Tet19 047 Me on Teton Crest Trail copy cropped 35 jpg
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.

From atop crumbling cliffs at the crater rim, hikers look out over the vast hole—2,000 feet deep and nearly two miles across—created by the 1980 eruption that decapitated St. Helens. Ice-capped volcanoes dominate three horizons: Rainier, Adams, Hood, and Jefferson. Scroll down to the photo gallery below from my family’s three-generation hike up St. Helens, and you’ll see why I consider it one of “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.”

A permit is required for every climber above 4,800 feet on Mount St. Helens. It costs $15/person for the permit plus $6 for every permit transaction. For the quota season of April 1 through Oct 31, there are daily limits on the total number of climbers permitted on the mountain.

For each month during the quota season, permits go on sale at recreation.gov at 7 a.m. Pacific Time on the first day of the preceding month; for example, permits for hiking the mountain in July go on sale on June 1. Permits sell out very quickly. See fs.usda.gov/detail/giffordpinchot/passes-permits/recreation/?cid=fseprd528670 for information.

Read my story “Three Generations, One Big Volcano: Pushing Limits on Mount St. Helens,” about my family’s three-generation hike of Mount St. Helens, with more photos, a video, and tips on how to pull it off yourself.

I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life.
Click here now to learn more.

Mount Hood from Monitor Ridge.
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” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Hel6-008-Mt.-Hood-from-Monitor-Ridge-Mt.-St.-Helens-WA.jpg?fit=300%2C165&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Hel6-008-Mt.-Hood-from-Monitor-Ridge-Mt.-St.-Helens-WA.jpg?fit=640%2C351&ssl=1″ srcset=”https://i1.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Hel6-008-Mt.-Hood-from-Monitor-Ridge-Mt.-St.-Helens-WA.jpg?strip=info&w=600&ssl=1 600w,https://i1.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Hel6-008-Mt.-Hood-from-Monitor-Ridge-Mt.-St.-Helens-WA.jpg
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