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Astrobiology is the field of science that studies the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the Universe. In practice, this means sending robotic missions beyond Earth to analyze the atmospheres, surfaces, and chemistry of extraterrestrial worlds. At present, all of our astrobiology missions are focused on Mars, as it is considered the most Earth-like environment beyond our planet. While several missions will be destined for the outer Solar System to investigate “Ocean Worlds” for evidence of life (Europa, Ganymede, Titan, and Enceladus), our efforts to find life beyond Earth will remain predominantly on Mars.

If and when these efforts succeed, it will have drastic implications for future missions to Mars. Not only will great care need to be taken to protect Martian life from contamination by Earth organisms, but precautions must be taken to prevent the same from happening to Earth (aka. Planetary Protection). In a recent study, a team from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, recommends that legal or normative frameworks be adopted now to ensure that future missions do not threaten sites where evidence of life (past or present) might be found.

The study was led by Clare Fletcher, a Ph.D. student with the Australian Centre for Astrobiology (ACA) and Earth and Sustainability Science Research Centre at UNSW. She was joined by Professor Martin Van Kranendonk, a researcher with the ACA and the head of the School of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Curtin University, and Professor Carol Oliver of the School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences at UNSW. Their research paper, “Exogeoconservation of Mars,” appeared on April 21st in Space Policy.

The search for life on Mars can be traced to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Percival Lowell made extensive observations from his observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Inspired by Schiaparelli’s illustrations of the Martian surface (which featured linear features he called “canali”), Lowell recorded what he also believed were canals and spent many years searching for other indications of infrastructure and an advanced civilization. During the ensuing decades, observatories worldwide observed Mars closely, looking for indications of life and similarities with Earth.

However, it was not until the Space Age that the first robotic probes flew past Mars, gathering data directly from its atmosphere and taking close-up images of the surface. These revealed a planet with a thin atmosphere composed predominantly of carbon dioxide and a frigid surface that did not appear hospitable to life. However, it was the Viking 1 and 2 missions, which landed on Mars in 1976, that forever dispelled the myth of a Martian civilization. But as Fletcher told Universe Today via email, the possibility of extant life has not been completely abandoned:

“It’s my personal belief that it is unlikely we will find evidence of extant (current) life on Mars, as opposed to evidence of past life on Mars. If we were to find extant life on Mars that could be proven to be endemic to Mars and not contamination from Earth, some think it might be found underground in lava tubes, for example, and some think the ice caps or any possible source of liquid water might be suitable places.”

Ironically, it was the same missions that discredited the notion of there being life on Mars that revealed evidence that water once flowed on its surface. Thanks to the many orbiter, lander, and rover missions sent to Mars since the turn of the century, scientists theorize that this period coincided with the Noachian Era (ca. 4.1 – 3.7 billion years ago). According to the most recent fossilized evidence, it was also during this period that life first appeared on Earth (in the form of single-celled bacteria).

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Artist’s impression of Mars during the Noachian Era. Credit: Ittiz/Wikipedia Commons

Our current astrobiology efforts on behalf of NASA and other space agencies are focused on Mars precisely for this reason: to
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5 Reasons You Must Backpack Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains

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By Michael Lanza

Chances are that, by now, you’ve heard of Idaho’s Sawtooths—having typed that name into a search box may be the reason you’ve landed on this story. Maybe you’ve been intrigued at what you’ve heard or images you’ve seen from Idaho’s best-known mountain range. Perhaps you’ve even been there and the experience has only amplified your curiosity to see more of this range.

As someone who’s had the good fortune of having backpacked all over the country and in many other countries over the past three-plus decades, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog, I rank the Sawtooths among the 10 best backpacking trips in America.

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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.

Backpackers on Trail 154 to Cramer Divide in Idaho’s Sawtooths.
” data-image-caption=”Backpackers on Trail 154 to Cramer Divide in Idaho’s Sawtooths.
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/06230304/Saw19-024-Backpackers-on-Trail-154-to-Cramer-Divide-Sawtooth-Mountains-Idaho.jpg?fit=200%2C300&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/06230304/Saw19-024-Backpackers-on-Trail-154-to-Cramer-Divide-Sawtooth-Mountains-Idaho.jpg?fit=683%2C1024&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/06230304/Saw19-024-Backpackers-on-Trail-154-to-Cramer-Divide-Sawtooth-Mountains-Idaho-683×1024.jpg?resize=683%2C1024&ssl=1″ alt=”Backpackers on Trail 154 to Cramer Divide in Idaho’s Sawtooths.” class=”wp-image-45355″ style=”width:572px;height:auto” srcset=”https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/06230304/Saw19-024-Backpackers-on-Trail-154-to-Cramer-Divide-Sawtooth-Mountains-Idaho.jpg 683w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/06230304/Saw19-024-Backpackers-on-Trail-154-to-Cramer-Divide-Sawtooth-Mountains-Idaho.jpg 200w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/06230304/Saw19-024-Backpackers-on-Trail-154-to-Cramer-Divide-Sawtooth-Mountains-Idaho.jpg 768w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/06230304/Saw19-024-Backpackers-on-Trail-154-to-Cramer-Divide-Sawtooth-Mountains-Idaho.jpg 800w” sizes=”(max-width: 683px) 100vw, 683px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />Backpackers on Trail 154 to Cramer Divide in Idaho’s Sawtooths.

I’ve wandered around the Sawtooths at least a couple dozen times over more than two decades, including numerous backpacking trips, dayhikes, peak scrambles, rock climbing, and backcountry skiing. While there remain peaks on my list to climb, a few trails to hike, and many lakes to leap into (or just sit beside), the Sawtooths have become my backyard mountains. I feel at home there.

This story presents the five reasons I think every backpacker should take a multi-day hike through the Sawtooths—spotlighting the characteristics of a trip there that make this place unique. I believe this argument may persuade you to go (if, somehow, the photos don’t do it).

See my e-book “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains” to learn all you need to know to plan and pull off a five-day, 36-mile Sawtooths hike through the core of the Sawtooths, and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan every detail of a multi-day hike there.

Please share your thoughts or experiences there in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I
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The Venerable Hubble Space Telescope Keeps Delivering

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The world was much different in 1990 when NASA astronauts removed the Hubble Space Telescope from Space Shuttle Discovery’s cargo bay and placed it into orbit. The Cold War was ending, there were only 5.3 billion humans, and the World Wide Web had just come online.

Now, the old Soviet Union is gone, replaced by a smaller but no less militaristic Russia. The human population has ballooned to 8.1 billion. The internet is a fixture in daily life. We also have a new, more powerful space telescope, the JWST.

But the Hubble keeps delivering, as this latest image shows.

The lenticular galaxy NGC 4753 is about 60 million light-years away. Lenticular galaxies are midway between elliptical and spiral galaxies. They have large-scale disks but only poorly defined spiral arms. NGC 4753 sees very little star formation because like other lenticulars, it’s used up most of its gas. The fact that they contain mostly older stars makes them similar to elliptical galaxies.

Among lenticulars, NGC 4753 is known for the dust lanes surrounding its nucleus. Astronomers think that spirals evolve into lenticulars in dense environments because they interact with other galaxies and with the intergalactic medium. However, NGC 4753 is in a low-density environment. Its environment and complex structure make it a target for astronomers to test their theories of galaxy formation and evolution.

This Hubble image is the sharpest ever taken of NGC 4753, revealing its intriguing complexity and highlighting the space telescope’s impressive resolving power.

Astronomers think that NGC 4753 is the result of a merger with a dwarf galaxy over one billion years ago. The dwarf galaxy was gas-rich, and NGC 4753's distinct dust rings probably accreted from the merger. NGC 4753's powerful gravity then shaped the gas into the complex shapes we see in this image. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, L. Kelsey
Astronomers think that NGC 4753 is the result of a merger with a dwarf galaxy over one billion years ago. The dwarf galaxy was gas-rich, and NGC 4753’s distinct dust rings probably accreted from the merger. NGC 4753’s powerful gravity then shaped the gas into the complex shapes we see in this image. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, L. Kelsey

NGC 4763’s unique structure results from a merger with a dwarf galaxy about 1.3 billion years ago. The video below from NOIRlab explains what happened.

NGC 4753 also hosts two known Type 1a supernovae, which are important because they help astronomers study the expansion of the Universe. They serve as standard candles, an important rung in the cosmic distance ladder.

Galaxies like NGC 4753 may not be rare, but the viewing angle plays a key role in identifying them. Our edge-on view of the galaxy makes its lenticular form clear. We could be seeing others like it from different angles that obscure its nature.

This is a model of NGC 4753, as seen from various viewing orientations. From left to right and top to bottom, the angle of the line of sight to the galaxy's equatorial plane ranges from 10° to 90° in steps of 10°. Although galaxies similar to NGC 4753 may not be rare, only certain viewing orientations allow for easy identification of a highly twisted disk. This infographic is a recreation of Figure 7 from a 1992 research paper.
This is a model of NGC
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Juno Reveals Secrets About Europa’s Icy Surface

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Europa has always held a fascination to me. I think it’s the concept of a world with a sub-surface ocean and the possibility of life that has inspired me and many others. In September 2022, NASAs Juno spacecraft made a flyby, coming within 355 kilometres of the surface. Since the encounter, scientists have been exploring the images and have identified regions where brine may have bubbled to the surface. Other images revealed possible, previously unidentified steep-walled depressions up to 50km wide, this could be caused by a free-floating ocean! 

Juno was launched to Jupiter on 5 August 2011. It took off from the Cape Canaveral site on board an Atlas V rocket and travelled around 3 billion kilometres. It arrived at Jupiter on 4 July 2016 and in September 2022 made its closest flyby of Europa. The frozen world is the second of the four Galilean satellites that were discovered by Galileo over 400 years ago. Visible in small telescopes, the true nature of the moon is only detectable by visiting craft like Juno. 

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Artist’s impression of NASA’s Galileo space probe in orbit of Jupiter. Credit: NASA

During its close fly-by, one of the onboard cameras known as Juno-Cam took the highest resolution images of the moon since Galileo took a flyby in 2000. The images supported the long held theory that the icy crusts at the north and south poles are not where they used to be. Another instrument on board, known as the Stellar Reference Unit (SRU), revealed possible activity resembling plumes where brine may have bubbled to the surface.

The ground track over Europa that was followed by Juno enabled imaging around the equatorial regions. The images revealed the usual, expected blocks of ice, walls, ridges and scarps but also found something else. Steep walled depressions that measured 20 to 50 kilometres across were also seen and they resembled large ovoid pits. 

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One of Juno’s enormous solar panels, unfurled on Earth. NASA/JPL. SWrI

The observations of the meanderings of the north/south polar ice and the varied surface features all point towards an outer icy shell that is free-floating upon the sub surface ocean. This can only happen if the outer shell is not connected to the rocky interior. When this happens, there are high levels of stress on the ice which then causes the fracture pattern witnessed. The images represent the first time such patterns have been seen in the southern hemisphere, the first evidence of true polar wandering.

The images from the SRU surprisingly provided the best quality images. It was originally designed to detect faint light from stars for navigation. Instead, the team used it to capture images when Europa was illuminated by the gentle glow of sunlight reflected from Jupiter. It was quite a novel approach and allowed complex features to become far more pronounced than before. Intricate networks of ridges criss-crossing the surface were identified along with dark stains from water plumes. One feature in particular stood out, nicknamed ‘the Platypus’, it was a 37 kilometre by 67 kilometre region shaped somewhat like a platypus.

Source : NASA’s Juno Provides High-Definition Views of Europa’s Icy Shell

The post Juno Reveals Secrets About Europa’s Icy Surface appeared first on Universe Today.

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