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In the past few decades, the number of planets discovered beyond our Solar System has grown into the thousands. At present, 4,389 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,260 systems, with another 5,941 candidates awaiting confirmation. Thanks to numerous follow-up observations and studies, scientists have learned a great deal about the types of planets that exist in our Universe, how planets form, and how they evolve.

A key consideration in all of this is how planets become (and remain) habitable over time. In general, astrobiologists have operated under the assumption that habitability comes down to where a planet orbits within a system – within its parent star’s habitable zone (HZ). However, new research by a team from Rice University, indicates that where a planet forms in its respective star system could be just as important.

The study, which was recently published in Nature Geoscience, was led by Rice graduate student Damanveer Grewal, who was joined by multiple colleagues from the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences at Rice University (including Rajdeep Dasgupta, the Maurice Ewing Professor of Earth Systems Science at Rice). Together, they looked beyond the Goldilocks Zone of stars to consider how factors involved in planetary formation would ultimately affect habitability.

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A study by Rice University scientists shows that where a planet forms in a star system will play a vital role in its habitability. Credit: Rice University/Amrita P. Vyas

Basically, a star’s HZ (or Goldilocks Zone) refers to the region where an orbiting planet will experience conditions warm enough to support liquid water on its surface and a rich atmosphere – the key ingredients for life. But after taking into account the elements that go into planetary formation, Grewal and his colleagues concluded that the amount of volatile elements a planet captures and retains during formation will also determine if it becomes habitable.

Central to this is the time it takes for material to accrete from a circumsolar disk into a protoplanet and the time the protoplanet takes to differentiate into its distinct layers (a metallic core, a silicate mantle and crust, and an atmospheric envelope). The balance between these two processes is critical in determining what volatile elements a rocky planet will retain, particularly nitrogen, carbon, and water, that give rise to life.

Using Dasgupta’s high-pressure lab at Rice, the research team used nitrogen as a proxy for volatiles and simulated how protoplanets undergo differentiation. What they found was that during this process, most of a protoplanet’s nitrogen is lost from the mantle and escapes into the atmosphere. From there, the nitrogen is lost to space as the protoplanet either cools or collides with other celestial objects during the next stage of its growth.

However, if the metallic core retains enough nitrogen, it could still be significant enough that over time, it will help form an “Earth-like” atmosphere later on (where it will play an important role as a buffer gas). From this, the researchers were able to model the thermodynamic and how it affects the distribution of nitrogen between a protoplanet’s atmosphere, molten silica layers, and core.

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Artist’s impression of the range of habitable zones for different types of stars. Credit:
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The Best Hikes in Yellowstone

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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 over 4.5 million visitors in 2023. 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/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/07000613/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg?fit=300%2C200&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/07000613/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg?fit=900%2C600&ssl=1″ tabindex=”0″ role=”button” src=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/07000613/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy-1024×683.jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1″ alt=”A hiker watching sunrise at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park.” class=”wp-image-20579″ srcset=”https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/07000613/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg 1024w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/07000613/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg 300w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/07000613/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg 768w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/07000613/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg 1080w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/07000613/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg 200w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/07000613/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg 670w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/07000613/Yel9-035-Mammoth-Hot-Springs-Yellowstone-National-Park.-copy.jpg 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, 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
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Moon Dust Could Contaminate Lunar Explorers’ Water Supply

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Water purification is a big business on Earth. Companies offer everything from desalination to providing just the right pH level for drinking water. But on the Moon, there won’t be a similar technical infrastructure to support the astronauts attempting to make a permanent base there. And there’s one particular material that will make water purification even harder – Moon dust. 

We’ve reported plenty of times about the health problems caused by the lunar regolith, so it seems apparent that you don’t want to drink it. Even more so, the abrasive dust can cause issues with seals, such as those used in electrolyzers to create rocket fuel out of in-situ water resources. It can even adversely affect water purification equipment itself. 

Unfortunately, this contamination is inevitable. Lunar dust is far too adhesive and electrostatically charged to be kept completely separate from the machinery that would recycle or purify the water. So, a group of researchers from DLR in Germany decided to test what would happen if you intentionally dissolved lunar regolith.

Fraser interviews Dr. Kevin Cannon, an expert in lunar dust mitigation.

The short answer is, unsurprisingly, nothing good. Dissolved lunar regolith causes pH, turbidity, and aluminum concentrations all exceed World Health Organization benchmarks for safe drinking water. This happened even with short exposure times (2 minutes) and static pH values, as they used a 5.5 pH buffer in part of the experiments. 

They didn’t use actual lunar dust for these experiments, but a simulant modeled on the regolith returned during the Apollo 16 mission. It mimics the regolith that is thought to be most similar to the Artemis landing sites. In addition to the pH changes and the amount of exposure time (which went up to 72 hours), the authors also varied the amount of dissolved oxygen in the system and the particle size of the simulant.

Those negative results occurred for every test variation, no matter what combination of the four control variables was used. Ultimately, that means engineers will have to devise a system to filter the water from these deposits before it can be recycled into the overall water system.

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After taking the first boot print photo, astronaut Buzz Aldrin moved closer to the little rock and took this second shot. His boot was already completely covered in adhesive dust.
Credit: NASA

The paper explored some potential solutions for that water purification system. Each of the limits that were violated requires its purification methodology. In the author’s estimation, lowering the turbidity is the first requirement. To do so, they suggest doing standard filtration or allowing the dust particles to settle. 

Removing aluminum is next in importance, with another experiment showing that plants that grew in lunar soil showed signs of aluminum toxicity. Additional ions, including calcium, iron, and manganese, also need to be removed, as they were above acceptable levels in some test batches but not all. Removing these ions would require a reverse osmosis process or ion exchange. Ion removal is vital to a fully functional electrolyzer system as well. 

The authors seemed to be ultimately going after a platform to test and validate water purification processes for future lunar exploration missions. Given the results from their experimentation, there will undoubtedly be future rounds of testing and plenty of technology development to work on solving these technical challenges. Ultimately, astronauts will have to drink water on the Moon – and it won’t be coming just from bottles from Earth.

Learn More:
Freer, Pesch, & Zabel – Experimental study to characterize water contaminated by lunar dust
UT – The Moon Is Toxic
UT – Astronauts Will Be Tracking Dust Into the Lunar Gateway. Is This a Problem?
UT – Lunar Dust is Still One of The Biggest Challenges Facing Moon Exploration

Lead Image:
Turbidity samples of some of the dissolved regolith.
Credit – Freer, Pesch, & Zabel

The post Moon Dust Could Contaminate Lunar Explorers’ Water Supply appeared first on Universe Today.

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Gaia Hit by a Micrometeoroid AND Caught in a Solar Storm

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For over ten years, the ESA’s Gaia Observatory has monitored the proper motion, luminosity, temperature, and composition of over a billion stars throughout our Milky Way galaxy and beyond. This data will be used to construct the largest and most precise 3D map of the cosmos ever made and provide insight into the origins, structure, and evolutionary history of our galaxy. Unfortunately, this sophisticated astrometry telescope is positioned at the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange Point, far beyond the protection of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetosphere.

As a result, Gaia has experienced two major hazards in recent months that could endanger the mission. These included a micrometeoroid impact in April that disrupted some of Gaia‘s very sensitive sensors. This was followed by a solar storm in May—the strongest in 20 years—that caused electrical problems for the mission. These two incidents could threaten Gaia‘s ability to continue mapping stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars, and other objects in the Universe until its planned completion date of 2025.

Micrometeroids are a common problem at the L2 Lagrange Point, roughly 1.5 million km (932,057 mi) from Earth, so engineers designed Gaia with a protective cover. Unfortunately, the particle was traveling at a very high velocity and struck the cover at precisely the wrong angle, causing a breach. This has allowed stray sunlight to interfere with Gaia’s ability to simultaneously collect light from so many distant stars. Gaia‘s engineering team was addressing this issue the moment the solar storm hit, adding electrical issues to their list of problems.

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Gaia’s all-sky view of our Milky Way Galaxy and neighboring galaxies, based on measurements of nearly 1.7 billion stars. Credit: ESA

Mission controllers first noticed signs of disruption in May when Gaia began registering thousands of false detections. They soon realized that this may have been due to the solar storm that began on May 11th, which could have caused one of the spacecraft’s charge-coupled devices (CCDs) to fail, which converts light gathered by Gaia’s billion-pixel camera into electronic signals. The observatory relies on 106 CCDs, each playing a different role. The affected sensor was vital for Gaia’s ability to confirm the detection of stars and validate its observations.

While the spacecraft was built to withstand radiation, it has been operating in space for almost twice as long as originally planned (6 years) and may have been pushed to its limits. As Edmund Serpell, Gaia spacecraft operations engineer at ESOC, explained in an ESA press release:

“Gaia typically sends over 25 gigabytes of data to Earth every day, but this amount would be much, much higher if the spacecraft’s onboard software didn’t eliminate false star detections first. Both recent incidents disrupted this process. As a result, the spacecraft began generating a huge number of false detections that overwhelmed our systems. We cannot physically repair the spacecraft from 1.5 million km away. However, by carefully modifying the threshold at which Gaia’s software identifies a faint point of light as a star, we have been able to dramatically reduce the number of false detections generated by both the straylight and CCD issues.”

Meanwhile, the Gaia teams at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC), and the European Space Astronomy Center (ESAC) have spent the past few months investigating these problems. They have also worked closely with engineers from Airbus Defence and Space (the spacecraft’s manufacturer) and payload experts at the Data Processing and Analysis Consortium. Thanks to their efforts, the GaiaObservatory recently returned to regular operations.

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