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1 big thing: Astronomy's continuing harassment problem

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Astronomy is still dealing with its own sexual harassment reckoning that came two years before the #MeToo movement swept through the entertainment industry, I write with Axios managing editor Alison Snyder.

Why it matters: Harassment, bias and discrimination lead to the underrepresentation of women — and particularly women of color, women with disabilities and LGBTQ+ women — in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine.

  • "The frontier for the U.S. STEM field is to attract and keep women and underrepresented minorities so that they can succeed," National Science Foundation director France Córdova told Axios.
  • "Without addressing those challenges, the U.S. will continue to exclude major percentages of its population from the STEM workforce, something that as a country, we cannot afford."

Driving the news: A new report from the National Academy of Sciences calls on federal funding agencies, universities and science organizations to take systemic action to address the factors that keep women from advancing in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM) careers.

  • The NAS report draws on multiple studies published in the past few years that found women scientists face widespread harassment.
  • In one study, 74% of female physics majors reported experiencing sexual harassment.
  • And 40% of women of color in astronomy and planetary science reported feeling unsafe in their workplace.

Background: In 2015, a BuzzFeed News investigation led to the resignation of Geoff Marcy, a prominent astronomer who had been in the running for a Nobel Prize at one point in his career.

  • Other prominent academics in various fields were also ousted after their own sexual harassment investigations came to light.
  • The scandals led to a frank conversation on social media — using the hashtag #AstroSH — about the everyday harassment women in astronomy face.

What's happening: The American Astronomical Society (AAS) launched a program last year that sends a site visit team, if invited, to audit university astronomy departments to evaluate and help improve their cultures with an eye toward inclusivity.

  • The AAS and universities also instituted policies to aid in reporting harassment and protecting those who come forward.
  • As of 2018, the National Science Foundation requires organizations to notify the agency of harassment by grant awardees and may terminate, suspend or transfer funding in those cases. So far there have been 24 such "term and condition" notifications, according to the NSF.

Yes, but: While astronomy and other academic institutions have responded to the sexual harassment problem, some say it hasn't been enough — or fast enough.

  • "There still needs to be a lot of education and a lot of awareness," astronomer Nicolle Zellner told Axios, adding that there are still departments around the country that likely aren't countering harassment and discrimination effectively.
  • Countering more subtle forms of gender harassment — like implying that women are less capable than men — is less straightforward and can contribute to women leaving astronomy or the sciences as a whole.
  • "Programs aimed at improving the representation of women in STEMM have largely benefited White women and have not paid enough attention to the experiences of women with multiple intersecting identities," per the report.
2. Space startup financing breaks records

A SpaceX rocket launch timelapse. Photo: SpaceX

Space-focused startups raked in $5.7 billion in financing in 2019, far surpassing the $3.5 billion raised in 2018, according to a new report from Bryce Space and Technology.

Why it matters: The report and others like it show investors still see the industry — buoyed by investor interest and new international companies — as ripe for investment.

  • "I think this is certainly showing a very dynamic market — a lot of interest in the sector," Janice Starzyk, Bryce's vice president of commercial space, told Axios.

Details: SpaceX, Blue Origin, OneWeb and Virgin Galactic accounted for about 70% of the investment tracked in the report.

  • The report also shows companies outside of the U.S. are getting more investment attention than in years past, in part because of the emergence of Chinese companies breaking into the launch sector.
  • "Last year, the No. 2 company would be the U.K., but now China has really shot up and is taking over as a big growth engine," Starzyk said.

Between the lines: Starzyk advises those interested in investing in space to look for opportunities beyond rocket companies — for example, companies building ground segments or other, less sexy parts of the industry.

The big picture: There are still major questions about where the space industry and investment in it will go from here, including when companies might become profitable.

  • Last year also saw a number of high-profile exits from the industry — including Vector Space's bankruptcy — that are spurring fears there might be a slowdown for industry investment in the near future.
3. Voyager 2's long silence

Artist's illustration of Voyager 2 in space. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voyager 2 — one of the farthest-flung spacecraft ever built — won't be able to receive commands from Earth until 2021.

Why it matters: If something goes wrong with the spacecraft in the next 11 months, it could mark the end of the long, iconic mission that is now exploring interstellar space, 11.5 billion miles from Earth.

Details: The communication disruption — which began on Monday — is necessary so that engineers can make repairs to a 70-meter antenna in Canberra, Australia that sends commands from the ground to Voyager 2.

  • The dish itself has been in use for almost 50 years, and operators on the ground need to repair components in order to keep it functioning reliably.
  • Voyager 2 will still be able to send science data back to Earth during this time through other Australian antennas.

The 70-meter antenna is part of the Deep Space Network, a 24/7 matrix of instruments around the world that are responsible for communication with distant spacecraft around the solar system.

  • It is currently the only antenna that can send commands to Voyager 2 due to its power and location in the Southern Hemisphere.

What's next: Voyager 2 and its twin, Voyager 1, are expected to have enough power to collect at least some science data through 2027, assuming no new issues crop up, according to NASA.

4. Out of this world reading list

Artist's illustration of the Perseverance rover on Mars. Photo: NASA

Musk: We're not spinning off Starlink (Caleb Henry, Space News)

NASA employee tests positive for coronavirus (Tariq Malik, Space.com)

Oddly dimming star isn't about to explode after all (Nadia Drake, National Geographic)

NASA's next Mars rover is named Perseverance (Axios)

Axiom and SpaceX plan to launch private crew to International Space Station (Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: A Martian panorama

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The hiking on Mars must be pretty sweet. A new panoramic image taken by NASA's Curiosity shows the mountains of the Red Planet in all their glory.

  • The panorama — released last week — was created from more than 1,000 photos taken during the 2019 Thanksgiving holiday by Curiosity from its position on the side of Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater.
  • The 1.8-billion-pixel panorama is the highest-resolution photo of its kind taken by Curiosity so far.
  • "It required more than 6 1/2 hours over the four days for Curiosity to capture the individual shots," NASA said in a statement.

Go deeper: Explore the full panorama or a 360° video via NASA.

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