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By Michael Lanza

The morning sun wouldn’t make the climb over Mount Grinnell and find its way into the valley of Swiftcurrent Creek for a couple of hours yet, so we hiked quickly without breaking a sweat in the chilly air. No one else was on the popular Swiftcurrent Pass Trail when we set out shortly after dawn, and this trail was new to us; so it felt like we were the first people to walk into this small but spectacular little crease in the mountains of Glacier National Park.

There was a good reason for our early start: We had a big day ahead of us, one of the finest long days of hiking one can do in this flagship national park—a judgment I make based on numerous visits dayhiking and backpacking much of Glacier over the past three decades, including 10 years I spent as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.

At the head of the valley, we zigzagged up through switchbacks beneath ribbon-like waterfalls free-falling hundreds of feet down cliffs, looking back down the valley at lakes flanked by the upright meat cleavers of Mts. Wilbur and Grinnell. Beyond Swiftcurrent Pass, we descended across alpine slopes strewn with wildflowers, with a sweeping view of mountains rolling to distant horizons.

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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-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

A backpacker on the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail in Glacier National Park.
” data-image-caption=”Jerry Hapgood hiking the Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan this trip.
” data-medium-file=”″ data-large-file=”″ width=”900″ height=”578″ src=”″ alt=”A backpacker on the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail in Glacier National Park.” class=”wp-image-17730″ srcset=” 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1080w, 200w, 670w, 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />Jerry Hapgood hiking the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo to
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Frontier Adventure

A Gamma-ray Burst Disturbed the Earth’s Ionosphere

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You’d think that something happening billions of light-years away wouldn’t affect Earth, right? Well, in 2002, a burst of gamma rays lasting 800 seconds actually impacted our planet. They came from a powerful and very distant supernova explosion. Its gamma-ray bombardment disturbed our planet’s ionosphere and activated lightning detectors in India.

This particular gamma-ray burst (GRB) occurred in a galaxy almost 2 billion light-years away (and took two billion years to reach us). Not only did ground-based detectors record the bombardment, but satellites sensitive to high-energy outbursts “saw” it, too. That included the European Space Agency’s International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (INTEGRAL) mission. It typically records gamma-ray bursts on a daily basis, but this one—named GRB 221009A—outshone all the rest.

GRBs this strong happen (on average) about once every 10,000 years, so this was one that caught everyone’s attention. “It was probably the brightest gamma-ray burst we have ever detected,” says Mirko Piersanti, University of L’Aquila, Italy, and lead author of a paper analyzing the event.

How The Gamma-ray Burst Affected the Ionosphere

Most of the time, radiation from the Sun bombards our planet. That’s often strong enough to affect the ionosphere. That’s an atmospheric layer that bristles with electrically charged gases called plasma. It stretches from around 50 km to 950 km in altitude above the surface. There’s a “top-side ionosphere” (which lies above 350 km) and a “bottom-side ionosphere”) which lies below that. Scientists are pretty familiar with how the Sun treats this region of the atmosphere, particularly during periods of heavy solar activity.

GRB 221009A: looking back through time at a gamma-ray-burst. Courtesy ESA
GRB 221009A: looking back through time at a gamma-ray-burst. Courtesy ESA

This GRB blast triggered instruments generally reserved for studying the immense explosions in the Sun’s atmosphere known as solar flares. “Notably, this disturbance impacted the very lowest layers of Earth’s ionosphere, situated just tens of kilometers above our planet’s surface, leaving an imprint comparable to that of a major solar flare,” says Laura Hayes, research fellow and solar physicist at ESA. That imprint basically was an increase in ionization in the bottom-side ionosphere. It left an imprint in low-frequency radio signals that move between Earth’s surface and the lowest levels of the ionosphere. “Essentially, we can say that the ionosphere ‘moved’ down to lower altitudes, and we detected this in how the radio waves bounce along the ionosphere,” explained Laura.

Gamma Ray Bursts in the Data

Past GRBs bothered the bottom-side ionosphere but didn’t always disturb the topside. Scientists just assumed that by the time it reached Earth, the blast from a GRB didn’t have the “oomph” to change that part of the ionosphere. GRB 221009A proved that idea wrong. Thanks to data from the orbiting China Seismo-Electromagnetic Satellite (CSES), scientists saw a strong disturbance in the upper ionosphere. It created a strong electric field variation and was the first time scientists saw this connected to a GRB. The result is the first-ever top-side ionospheric measurement of electric field variations triggered by a gamma-ray outburst at cosmic distances.

INTEGRAL and other spacecraft continually record GRBs from around the Universe. Have they all affected our ionosphere in some way? Is there a way to find out? Now that scientists know what ionospheric effects to look for, they can search the data to find answers. Data from INTEGRAL, and CSES will be particularly useful. They should be able to correlate it with other GRBs seen since 2018. That’s when CSES was launched.

Evidence of ionospheric disturbances from GRBs goes back as far as 1988. That’s when the effects of a 1983 gamma-ray burst were first reported. Scientists now have an array of ground-based and space-based detectors—such as Swift, Fermi, MAXI, AGILE, INTEGRAL, and CSES—gave strong detections of the emissions from GRB221009A.

Implications for Future GRB Effects on Earth

This kind of disturbance
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Should We Send Humans to Venus?

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NASA is preparing to send humans back to the Moon with the Artemis missions in the next few years as part of the agency’s Moon to Mars Architecture with the long-term goal of landing humans on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s or 2040s. But what about sending humans to other worlds of the Solar System? And, why not Venus? It’s closer to Earth than Mars by several tens of millions of kilometers, and despite its extremely harsh surface conditions, previous studies have suggested that life could exist in its clouds. In contrast, we have yet to find any signs of life anywhere on the Red Planet or in its thin atmosphere. So, should we send humans to Venus?

“Yes, we should send humans to Venus,” Dr. Paul Byrne, who is an Associate Professor of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, tells Universe Today. “But first, let’s talk about what ‘sending humans to Venus’ actually means. The surface of Venus is hellish, so nobody would last long there nor volunteer to go. Above the clouds, the temperature and pressure are almost like a nice spring day here on Earth, so aside from tiny sulphuric acid cloud droplets you’d be okay (with a breathing apparatus).”

These “hellish” conditions that Dr. Byrne alludes to are the extreme conditions across the surface of Venus, including surface pressures 92 times that of Earth’s surface and average surface temperatures of approximately 464 degrees Celsius (867 degrees Fahrenheit). In contrast, Earth’s average surface temperatures are a calm 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit). These extreme pressures and temperatures have made landing on the surface of Venus even more difficult, as the former Soviet Union continues to be the only nation to have successfully landed on Venus’ surface, having accomplished this feat with several of their Venera and Vega missions. However, the longest mission duration for the lander was only 127 minutes (Venera 13), which also conducted the first sound recording on another planet.

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Color images taken by the Soviet Union’s Venera 13 lander on the surface of Venus on March 1, 1982, with the lander surviving only 127 minutes due to Venus’s extreme surface conditions. (Credit: NASA)

“If we were to send humans to Venus, they’d be going in a spacecraft that would fly by the planet en route somewhere else,” Dr. Byrne tells Universe Today. “If we were to one day send humans actually to Venus itself for science and engineering purposes, then a cloud-based habitat is the way to go. Getting humans onto the Venus surface is going to require so much technology and expense that, for the foreseeable future, I don’t think anyone will think it worth doing.”

A 2015 study presented at the AIAA Space and Astronautics Forum and Exposition outlined a NASA study for the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) mission that would involve a 30-day crewed mission using an airship equipped with solar panels within the upper atmosphere of Venus. This is because Venus’ upper atmosphere at approximately 50 kilometers (30 miles) above the surface exhibits much more hospitable conditions, including temperatures between 30 to 70 degrees Celsius (86 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit) and pressures very close to that of Earth. However, Dr. Byrne refers to HAVOC as an “unbelievably expensive concept”.

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Artist rendition of proposed habitable airships traversing Venus’ atmosphere, which has been proposed as the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) mission. (Credit: NASA)

As for using Venus while en route to another location in the Solar System, Venus has been used on several occasions to slingshot spacecraft to the outer Solar System as well as for exploration of the inner Solar System, such as Mercury and the Sun. For example, NASA’s Galileo and Cassini spacecraft used gravity assists

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We Should Hit Peak Solar Activity Next Year

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You may be familiar with the solar cycle that follows a 22 year process shifting from solar minimum to maximum and back again. It’s a cycle that has been observed for centuries yet predicting its peak has been somewhat challenging. The Sun’s current cycle is approaching maximum activity which brings with it higher numbers of sunspots on its surface, more flares and more coronal mass ejections. A team from India now believe they have discovered a new element of the Sun’s magnetic field allowing them to predict the peak will occur early in 2024.

The Sun is a gigantic sphere of plasma or electrically charged gas. One of the features of plasma is that if a magnetic field passes through it, the plasma moves with it. Conversely if the plasma moves, the magnetic field moves too. This magnetic field is just like Earth and is known as a dipole magnetic field. You can visualise it if you can remember your school science days with a bar magnet and iron filings.

A dipole magnetic field has two opposite but equal charges and at the start of the Sun’s cycle the field lines effectively run from the north pole to the south. As the Sun rotates, with the equator rotating faster than the polar regions, then the plasma drags the magnetic field lines with it, winding them tighter and tighter.

The field lines become stretched causing the magnetic field to loop up and through the visible surface of the Sun. This localised event prevents the convection of super heated gas from underneath and appears as a cooler area of the surface which appears dark. As the solar cycle starts, these sunspots appear around the polar regions and slowly migrate toward the equator as it progresses with peak activity occurring when the sunspots fade away as we head toward the start of another cycle. 

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Image of sunspots (Credit : NASA Goddard Space Flight Center // SDO)

On occasions the magnetic field of sunspots are disrupted and we can experience flares or coronal mass ejections hurling vast amounts of charged particles out into space. If they reach us here on Earth they give rise to the beautiful aurora displays but they do also have a rather negative impact to satellites, power grids and telecommunications systems.

Deep inside the Sun, a dynamo mechanism is driving all this. It is created by the energy from the movement of plasma and it is this that is responsible for the flipping of the Sun’s magnetic poles where the north pole becomes south and the south pole becomes north which happens every 11 years or so. It’s another aspect of the solar cycle.

It’s been known since the 1930’s that the rate of rise the sunspot cycle relates to its strength with stronger cycles taking less time to reach peak. In the paper published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters; Priyansh Jaswal, Chitradeep Saha and Dibyendu Nandy from the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research announced their findings. They discovered that the rate of decrease in the Sun’s dipole magnetic field also seems to relate to the rise of the present cycle.

The team have looked back through archives and have shown how the observation of the dipole decrease rate along with observations of sunspots can predict the peak of activity with better accuracy than before. They conclude the current cycle is expected to peak somewhere between early 2024 and September next year. Being able to better predict the peak of activity will help understand the likely intensity of space weather events here on Earth providing us more warning to be able to prepare.

Source : Solar activity likely to peak next year, new study suggests

The post We Should Hit Peak Solar Activity Next Year appeared first on Universe Today.

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