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In the quest to understand how and where life might arise in the galaxy, astronomers search for its building blocks. Complex Organic Molecules (COMs) are some of those blocks, and they include things like formaldehyde and acetic acid, among many others. The JWST has found some of these COMs around young protostars. What does this tell astronomers?

While the molecules in question are complex and organic, they’re nowhere near as large as terrestrial COMs. For that reason, scientists sometimes call them iCOMs, where i stands for interstellar. iCOMS include simple alcohols, esters, nitriles, and ethers. To be a COM, a molecule must have at least six atoms, one of which must be carbon.

Astronomers have found iCOMs inside star-forming regions, in clumps called hot cores or hot corinos. These cores and corinos give rise to massive and smaller protostars, respectively. As these protostars form, they also form protoplanetary disks. So, if astronomers can detect iCOMs in these protostars, then they can reasonably expect that they’ll be present in the protoplanetary disk on any rocky planets that might form. That means that there’s a plausible pathway from complex organic molecules around protostars to rocky planets and the potential for life.

Astronomers have found some iCOMS before using radiotelescopes like ALMA and the VLA to see through the surrounding dust.

This image is from 2020 research into hot corinos. Radio telescope observations allowed astronomers to find COMs in the hot corino around a pair of young, still-forming protostars. Image Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF
This image is from 2020 research into hot corinos. Radio telescope observations revealed COMs in the hot corino around a pair of young, still-forming protostars. Image Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

In new research, a team of astronomers examined a pair of young protostars and searched for COMs using the JWST. Their observations are part of the JOYS+ (JWST Observations of Young protoStars) observing program that examined 30 young stars. The observations were obtained with the JWST’s MIRI and MRS instruments.

The researchers examined one high-mass protostar and one low-mass protostar from the 30-star sample. They’re called NGC 1333 IRAS 2A and IRAS 23385+6053, respectively. NGC 1333 is a star-forming region in the Perseus Molecular Cloud about 960 light-years away.

NGC 1333 is an extremely active star-forming region. This Hubble image shows how dust obscures most of the star formation. Radio telescopes have found iCOMs around young protostars in this region, and now the JWST has found even more of them. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

Astronomers have detected COMS in the gas phase around protostars before, but only smaller ones no larger than CH3OH (methanol.) They expect that these gaseous COMs come from solid phase COMs formed on ice grains, but those are tough to detect. But like a host of other issues in astronomy and astrophysics, the JWST allows scientists to dig deeper. Its range and sensitivity allow it to detect more icy grain COMs that include oxygen. Oxygen’s significance in the chemistry of life can’t be overstated: there’s no water without it.

JWST COMs in NGC 1333Did you miss our previous article…

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European Satellite ERS-2 to Reenter Earth’s Atmosphere This Week

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One of the largest reentries in recent years, ESA’s ERS-2 satellite is coming down this week.

After almost three decades in orbit, an early Earth-observation satellite is finally coming down this week. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Remote Sensing satellite ERS-2 is set to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere on or around Wednesday, February 21st.

Trail Blazing Mission

Launched atop an Ariane-4 rocket from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on April 21st, 1995, ERS-2 was one of ESA’s first Earth observation satellites. ERS-2 monitored land masses, oceans, rivers, vegetation and the polar regions of the Earth using visible light and ultraviolet sensors. The mission was on hand for several natural disasters, including the flood of the Elbe River across Germany in 2006. ERS-2 ceased operations in September 2011.

Anatomy of the reentry of ERS-2. ESA

ERS-2 was placed in a retrograde, Sun-synchronous low Earth orbit, inclined 98.5 degrees relative to the equator. This orbit is typical for Earth-observing and clandestine spy satellites, as it allows the mission to image key target sites at the same relative Sun angle, an attribute handy for image interpretation.

ERS-2 tracks and ice floe. ESA

The Last Days of ERS-2

Reentry predictions for the satellite are centered on February 21st at 00:19 Universal Time (UT)+/- 25 hours. As we get closer, expect that time to get refined. The mass of ERS-2 at launch (including fuel) was 2,516 kilograms. Expect most of the satellite to burn up on reentry.

The orbital path of ERS-2. Orbitron

For context, recent high profile reentries include the UARS satellite (6.5 tons, in 2011), and the massive Long March-5B booster that launched the core module for China’s Tiangong Space Station in late 2022 (weighing in at 23 tons).

ERS-2 in the clean room on Earth prior to launch. ESA

ESA passed its first space debris mitigation policy in 2008, 13 years after ERS-2 was launched. In 2011, ESA decided to passively reenter the satellite, and began a series of 66 deorbiting maneuvers to bring its orbit down from 785 kilometers to 573 kilometers. Its fuel drained and batteries exhausted, ERS-2 is now succumbing to the increased drag of the Earth’s atmosphere as we near the peak of the current solar cycle.

North Prague Floods ERS

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Look at How Much the Sun Has Changed in Just Two Years

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The solar cycle has been reasonably well understood since 1843 when Samuel Schwabe spent 17 years observing the variation of sunspots. Since then, we have regularly observed the ebb and flow of the sunspots cycle every 11 years. More recently ESA’s Solar Orbiter has taken regular images of the Sun to track the progress as we head towards the peak of the current solar cycle. Two recently released images from February 2021 and October 2023 show how things are really picking up as we head toward solar maximum.

The Sun is a great big ball of plasma, electrically charged gas, which has the amazing property that it can move a magnetic field that may be embedded within.  As the Sun rotates, the magnetic field gets dragged around with it but, because the Sun rotates faster at the equator than at the poles, the field lines get wound up tighter and tighter.

Under this immense stressing, the field lines occasionally break, snap or burst through the surface of the Sun and when they do, we see a sunspot. These dark patches on the visible surface of the Sun are regions where denser concentrations of solar material prohibit heat flow to the visible surface giving rise to slightly cooler, and therefore darker patches on the Sun. 

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A collage of new solar images captured by the Inouye Solar Telescope, which is a small amount of solar data obtained during the Inouye’s first year of operations throughout its commissioning phase. Images include sunspots and quiet regions of the Sun, known as convection cells. (Credit: NSF/AURA/NSO)

The slow rotation of the Sun and the slow but continuous winding up of the field lines means that sun spots become more and more numerous as the field gets more distorted. Observed over a period of years the spots seem to slowly migrate from the polar regions to the equatorial regions as the solar cycle progresses.

To try and help understand this complex cycle and unlock other mysteries of the Sun, the European Space Agency launched its Solar Orbiter on 10 February 2020. Its mission to explore the Sun’s polar regions, understand what drives the 11 year solar cycle and what drives the heating of the corona, the outer layers of the Sun’s atmosphere. 

Solar Orbiter
Solar Orbiter

Images from Solar Orbiter have been released that show closeups of the Sun’s visible surface, the photosphere as it nears peak of solar activity. At the beginning of the cycle, at solar minimum in 2019, there was relatively little activity and only a few sunspots. Since then, things have been slowly increasing. The image from February 2021 showed a reasonably quiet Sun but an image taken in October last year shows that things are, dare I say, hotting up! The maximum of this cycle is expected to occur in 2025 which supports theories that the period of maximum activity could arrive a year earlier.

Understanding the cycle is not just of whimsical scientific interest, it is vital to ensure we minimise damage to ground based and orbiting systems but crucially understand impact on life on Earth.

Source : Sun’s surprising activity surge in Solar Orbiter snapshot

The post Look at How Much the Sun Has Changed in Just Two Years appeared first on Universe Today.

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How to Get a Permit to Backpack Rainier’s Wonderland Trail

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By Michael Lanza

Any backpacker making the substantial effort to hike the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Washington’s Mount Rainier soon discovers why it’s one of the most popular backpacking trips in the country. Those reasons include regularly wading through some of the best wildflower meadows you’ll see anywhere, the numerous waterfalls and raging rivers gray with glacial flour—and the countless times that the most heavily glaciated peak in the Lower 48, 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, suddenly pops into view, looking impossibly massive.

That’s also why few backcountry permits are harder to get than one for the Wonderland—unquestionably one of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and “The 10 Best National Park Backpacking Trips.”

If you want to backpack the Wonderland Trail this year, it’s essential that you know how to navigate the permit-application process and the strategies that can help improve your odds of getting a permit—and the time to start that process is now.

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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.

Backpackers in Moraine Park on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.
” data-image-caption=”Jeff Wilhelm and Todd Arndt in Moraine Park on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.
” data-medium-file=”″ data-large-file=”″ src=”″ alt=”Backpackers in Moraine Park on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.” class=”wp-image-42741″ style=”width:426px;height:638px” srcset=” 683w, 200w, 768w, 800w” sizes=”(max-width: 683px) 100vw, 683px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />Jeff Wilhelm and Todd Arndt in Moraine Park on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.

This story will explain the procedure for obtaining a permit to backpack Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail and offer tips on how to maximize your chances of success, sharing expertise I’ve acquired from multiple trips on the WT and in Mount Rainier National Park over the past three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.

See my feature story (which requires a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full) about my most-recent trip on much of the WT, a 77-mile route that combines what I consider the trail’s best sections and alternate segments, plus “5 Reasons You Must Backpack Mount
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