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By Michael Lanza

Yellowstone National Park is a place where the earth comes alive, with more than 10,000 hydrothermal features and 500 active geysers—that’s more than half the world’s geysers—as well as 290 waterfalls, not to mention having some of the greatest diversity of wildlife remaining in the contiguous United States. America’s first national park is also famously busy, drawing between three and four million visitors a year. Thankfully, most of those visitors never wander far from the roads, which means that hiking provides one of the best and quietest ways to explore Yellowstone.

While the summer months are busiest—and traffic gets very heavy—an early start each day can put you ahead of the crowds. Even better, go there either after the park roads open in spring or in autumn, when the weather is often dry and comfortably cool and the hordes of tourists have dissipated (at least somewhat).

A hiker watching sunrise at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park.
” data-image-caption=”A hiker watching sunrise at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park.
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg?fit=300%2C200&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg?fit=900%2C600&ssl=1″ decoding=”async” width=”900″ height=”600″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1″ alt=”A hiker watching sunrise at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park.” class=”wp-image-20579″ srcset=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg?resize=1024%2C683&ssl=1 1024w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg?resize=300%2C200&ssl=1 300w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg?resize=768%2C512&ssl=1 768w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg?resize=1080%2C720&ssl=1 1080w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg?resize=200%2C133&ssl=1 200w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg?resize=670%2C447&ssl=1 670w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg?w=1200&ssl=1 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />A hiker watching sunrise at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park.

The 10 hikes described below stand out as the best I’ve taken in Yellowstone on multiple visits over more than three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. See also my “Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone” for ideas on the best spots to visit and take short walks while driving through the park.

Every American should see Yellowstone. Explore it on these hikes and you will see the best the park has to offer.

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Hi, I’m Michael Lanza,
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The Milky Way’s Most Massive Stellar Black Hole is Only 2,000 Light Years Away

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Astronomers have found the largest stellar mass black hole in the Milky Way so far. At 33 solar masses, it dwarfs the previous record-holder, Cygnus X-1, which has only 21 solar masses. Most stellar mass black holes have about 10 solar masses, making the new one—Gaia BH3—a true giant.

Supermassive black holes (SMBH) like Sagittarius A Star at the heart of the Milky Way capture most of our black hole attention. Those behemoths can have billions of solar masses and have enormous influence on their host galaxies.

But stellar-mass holes are different. Unlike SMBHs that grow massive through mergers with other black holes, stellar black holes result from massive stars exploding as supernovae. SMBHs are always found in the center of a massive galaxy, but stellar black holes can be hidden anywhere.

“This is the kind of discovery you make once in your research life.”

Pasquale Panuzzo, National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) at the Observatoire de Paris

Astronomers found BH3 in data from the ESA’s Gaia spacecraft. It’s Gaia’s third stellar black hole. BH3 has a stellar companion, and the black hole’s 33 combined solar masses tugged on its aged, metal-poor companion. The star’s tell-tale wobbling betrayed BH3’s presence. At only 2,000 light-years away, BH3 is awfully close in cosmic terms.

Astronomers have found the most massive stellar black hole in our galaxy, thanks to the wobbling motion it induces on a companion star. This artist's impression shows the star's orbits and the black hole, dubbed Gaia BH3, around their common centre of mass. The European Space Agency's Gaia mission measured this wobbling over several years. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
Astronomers have found the most massive stellar black hole in our galaxy, thanks to the wobbling motion it induces on a companion star. This artist’s impression shows the star’s orbits and the black hole, dubbed Gaia BH3, around their common centre of mass. The European Space Agency’s Gaia mission measured this wobbling over several years. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

A new research letter in Astronomy and Astrophysics presented the discovery. Its title is “Discovery of a dormant 33 solar-mass black hole in pre-release Gaia astrometry.” The lead author is Pasquale Panuzzo, an astronomer from the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) at the Observatoire de Paris.

“No one was expecting to find a high-mass black hole lurking nearby, undetected so far,” said Panuzzo. “This is the kind of discovery you make once in your research life.”

This black hole is remarkable for its considerable mass. Researchers have found stellar black holes with similar masses, but always in other galaxies. The size is confounding, but astrophysicists have pieced together how they may become so massive.

They could result from the collapse of metal-poor stars. These stars are composed almost entirely of hydrogen and helium, the primordial elements. Scientists think these stars lose less mass over their lifetimes of fusion than other stars. They retain more mass, so they collapse into more massive black holes. This idea is based on theory; there’s no direct evidence.

But BH3 could change that.

Binary stars tend to form together and have the same metallicity. Follow-up observations showed that BH3’s companion star is likely a remnant of a globular cluster that the Milky Way absorbed more than eight billion years ago. Since binary stars tend to have the same metallicity, this metal-poor companion bolsters the idea that low-metallicity stars can retain more mass and form larger stellar black holes. This is the first evidence supporting the idea that ancient and metal-poor massive stars collapse into massive black holes. It also supports the idea that these early stars may have evolved differently than modern stars of similar masses.

But there’s another interpretation.

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The Solar Eclipse Like We’ve Never Seen it Before

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You had to be in the right part of North America to get a great view of the recent solar eclipse. But a particular telescope may have had the most unique view of all. Even though that telescope is in Hawaii and only experienced a partial eclipse, its images are interesting.

You had to be in the right part of North America to get a great view of the recent eclipse. Image Credit: DKIST/NSO/NSF/AURA
You had to be in the right part of North America to get a great view of the recent eclipse. Image Credit: DKIST/NSO/NSF/AURA

The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) is at the Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii. With its four-meter mirror, it’s the largest solar telescope in the world. It observes in visible to near-infrared light, and its sole target is the Sun. It can see features on the Sun’s surface as small as 20 km (12 miles.) It began science operations in February 2022, and its primary objective is to study the Sun’s magnetic fields.

This is a collage of solar images captured by the Inouye Solar Telescope. Images include sunspots and quiet regions of the Sun, known as convection cells. (Credit: NSF/AURA/NSO)
This is a collage of solar images captured by the Inouye Solar Telescope. Images include sunspots and quiet regions of the Sun, known as convection cells. (Credit: NSF/AURA/NSO)

Though seeing conditions weren’t perfect during the eclipse and the eclipse was only partial when viewed from Hawaii, the telescope still gathered enough data to create a movie of the Moon passing in front of the Sun. The bumps on the Moon’s dark edge are lunar mountains.

via GIPHY

“The team’s primary mission during Maui’s partial eclipse was to acquire data that allows the characterization of the Inouye’s optical system and instrumentation,” shares National Solar Observatory scientist Dr. Friedrich Woeger.

The Moon plays a critical role in measuring the telescope’s performance. Its edge is well-known and as a dark object in front of the Sun, it acts as a unique tool to measure the Inouye telescope’s performance and to understand the data it collects. Since the telescope has to correct for Earth’s turbulent atmosphere with adaptive optics, the Moon’s known qualities help researchers work with the telescope’s optical elements.

The Daniel Inouye Solar Telescope at the Haleakala Observatory on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Image Credit: DKIST/NSO
The Daniel Inouye Solar Telescope at the Haleakala Observatory on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Image Credit: DKIST/NSO

“With the Inouye’s high order adaptive optics system operating, the blurring due to the Earth’s atmosphere was greatly reduced, allowing for extremely high spatial resolution images of the moving lunar edge,” said Woeger.
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The Milky Way’s History is Written in Streams of Stars

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The Milky Way is ancient and massive, a collection of hundreds of billions of stars, some dating back to the Universe’s early days. During its long life, it’s grown to these epic proportions through mergers with other, smaller galaxies. These mergers punctuate our galaxy’s history, and its story is written in the streams of stars left behind as evidence after a merger.

And it’s still happening today.

The Milky Way is currently digesting smaller galaxies that have come too close. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds feel the effects as the Milky Way’s powerful gravity distorts them and siphons a stream of gas and stars from them to our galaxy. A similar thing is happening to the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy and globular clusters like Omega Centauri.

There’s a long list of these stellar streams in the Milky Way, though the original galaxies that spawned them are long gone, absorbed by the Milky Way. But the streams still tell the tale of ancient mergers and absorptions. They hold kinematic and chemical clues to the galaxies and clusters they spawned in.

This image shows recent stellar streams on the Milky Way studied by the Southern Stellar Stream Spectroscopic Survey (S? collaboration) using the Anglo-Australian Telescope (2022). Image Credit: By Ting Li (Southern Stellar Stream Spectroscopic Survey-S? collaboration) - https://s5collab.github.io/one_dozen_streams_press_release/https://twitter.com/d_dabed/status/1482759023879409669, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=114370789

As astronomers get better tools to find and study these streams, they’re realizing the streams could tell them more than just the history of mergers. They’re like strings of pearls, and their shapes and other properties show how gravity has shaped them. But they also reveal something else important: how dark matter has shaped them.

Since dark matter is so mysterious, any chance to learn something about it is a priority. As researchers examine the stellar streams, they’re finding signs of disturbances in them—including missing members—that aren’t explained by the Milky Way’s mass. They suspect that dark matter is the cause.

“If we find a pearl necklace with a few scattered pearls nearby, we can deduce that something may have come along and broken the string.”

Soon, astronomers will have an enormously powerful tool to study these streams and dark matter’s role in disturbing them: the Vera Rubin Observatory (VRO).

Astronomers have different methods of studying dark matter. Weak gravitational lensing is one of them, and it maps dark matter on the large scale of galaxy clusters. But stellar streams are at the opposite end of the scale. By mapping them and their irregularities and disturbances, astronomers can study dark matter at a much smaller scale.

This image shows the core of the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy and its stellar streams as it's absorbed by the Milky Way. Image Credit: David Law/UCLA
This image shows the core of the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy and its stellar streams as it’s absorbed by the Milky Way. Image Credit: David Law/UCLA

The Rubin Observatory will complete its Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) in a ten-year period. Alongside its time-domain astronomy objectives, the LSST will also study dark matter. The LSST Dark Energy Science Collaboration is aimed at dark matter and will use Rubin’s power to advance the study of dark energy and dark matter like nothing before it.
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