Jun 16, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,428 words, this week's newsletter will take you about 5 minutes to read.

1 big thing: Astronomers and physicists grapple with racism

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

As society at large confronts how racism has shaped our world, astronomers and physicists say it's long past time for their field to experience its own reckoning.

What's happening: From strikes to reports to calls for action, astronomers and physicists are calling for an end to the structural racism that has shaped their fields and the sciences at large.

  • Thousands of scientists participated in a strike last week to call attention to the barriers that keep black people out of the sciences. Space-focused organizations, like arXiv.org and the American Astronomical Society, and individual astronomers took part in the strike.
  • "I feel so hopeful because now there's this collective accountability," astrophysicist Brittany Kamai told Axios.
  • A report released earlier this year from the American Institute of Physics underscores the systemic barriers black students face, calling for a $50 million fund to help double the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to black students in the U.S. by 2030.
"The persistent underrepresentation of African Americans in physics and astronomy is due to the lack of a supportive environment for African American students in many departments, and to the enormous financial challenges facing these students in general."
— AIP report

The big picture: People of color accounted for about 9% of STEM faculty members as of 2017.

  • Only 66 black women earned doctorates in physics in the U.S. between 1973 and 2012, according to Quartz. In that same time period, more than 22,000 white men received the same degree.
  • The bigger picture: "I hope people take seriously that this isn’t just about racism in academia," cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire told Axios via email. "This is about racism in the world. On the streets. Black scientists aren’t safe until Black people, in general, are safe."

Where it stands: Some organizations and departments are aiming to bring more people of color into astronomy and physics.

  • The Fisk-Vanderbilt University Masters-to-Ph.D. bridge program, for example, has trained 35 students — 32 from underrepresented groups — since 2004, with 32 of them transitioning into a Ph.D. program either at Vanderbilt or elsewhere.
  • The Harvard astronomy department currently has nine black Ph.D. students among its 50 after hiring John Asher Johnson, the department's first black tenured professor in 2013 and dropping the general GRE as an admissions requirement.

Yes, but: There is still a long way to go before black astronomers, physicists and students have the same access to opportunities as their white peers.

  • "I don’t think departments are making big strides. Some are taking some baby steps," Prescod-Weinstein said. "The way to overcome racism is to admit you have a problem with it and that you might be benefiting from it. A lot of people aren’t ready to be honest because they benefit from the lie that academia is currently meritocratic."

Go deeper: Coronavirus pandemic could impact diversity in astronomy

2. Astronauts speak out

NASA astronaut Jessica Meir on a spacewalk. Photo: NASA

Current and former astronauts are speaking out on social media and in interviews in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against police violence.

Why it matters: Astronauts are NASA's public face and usually avoid politically charged topics in public, but as the agency's astronauts have more direct means of communication to the public, those lines are beginning to blur.

  • "While they still need to avoid becoming overtly political (as laws govern what civil servants can legally say and do), we have seen some astronauts take to their online channels to become more vocal in the issues of the day," Robert Pearlman, space historian and editor of CollectSPACE.com, told Axios.

Details: Active astronauts Jessica Meir, Victor Glover and others have all publicly posted either explicitly or implicitly supporting the movement.

  • Meir tweeted a photo of a black square for Blackout Tuesday, a collective action drawing attention to police brutality and racism.
  • Glover explained to a person on Twitter why he can't just stick to space during difficult times like these: "Remember who is doing space. People are. As we address extreme weather and pandemic disease, we will understand and overcome racism and bigotry so we can safely and together do space."
  • Former astronaut Leland Melvin shared a powerful story with the Planetary Society about an encounter with the police in high school that could have derailed his life and how he couldn't dream of being an astronaut during the Moon landing in the 1960s because he didn't see anyone who looked like him involved in it.

Background: "The day I showed up in Houston, they basically said rule No. 1 was don't become famous," former astronaut Michael López-Alegria, who began his training as an astronaut in 1992, told Axios. "That's clearly not the case anymore."

  • According to López-Alegria, the reasoning behind that rule hinged on the idea that if an astronaut was out there speaking their mind and bringing controversy to the agency, they aren't a team player.
  • The perception was that if astronauts courted fame, then they may miss out on possible flight opportunities.

What to watch: NASA's astronaut corps is becoming more diverse, and with that will likely come new conversations — many of them in public — about how the agency's next generation of explorers should engage with the public.

3. VIPER's countdown to the Moon

The Moon's north pole. Photo: NASA/JPL

NASA last week announced that the company Astrobotic will deliver the agency's VIPER rover to the lunar surface, bringing the space agency another step closer to understanding exactly how much water is on the Moon.

Why it matters: Companies and space agencies hope to one day mine the Moon for water that can be turned into rocket fuel that could be used to get spacecraft to other, distant targets like Mars. But how much water is actually there is unknown.

  • VIPER will be the first step toward understanding the Moon's polar water and if it can be harvested.

Details: The VIPER rover is expected to launch to the south pole of the Moon in 2023 for a 100-day mission.

  • The agency will also test out the rover's instruments with landers bound for the Moon in 2021 and 2022.
  • The data the rover collects will help NASA put together a map of water on the Moon and help the agency learn more about what exactly can be done with it in the future.
  • "We’re doing something that’s never been done before — testing the instruments on the Moon as the rover is being developed," NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement. "VIPER and the many payloads we will send to the lunar surface in the next few years are going to help us realize the Moon’s vast scientific potential.”
  • Astrobotic's contract is worth $199.5 million.

What's next: The rover is expected to be a precursor mission to NASA's Artemis program, designed to bring astronauts to the surface of the Moon in 2024.

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify that Astrobotic will deliver VIPER to the Moon, not build the rover.

4. 1 👽 thing: 36 civilizations may be out there

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

More than 30 intelligent alien civilizations could exist in the Milky Way, according to a new study in The Astrophysical Journal.

The big picture: Scientists have long tried to estimate how many alien civilizations like our own could be out in the universe.

  • The Drake Equation is most famous, but the new study uses a simple way to estimate exactly how many intelligent civilizations could be lurking in our galaxy.

What they did: The new study uses Earth as a model for how life may form in other parts of the Milky Way.

  • “There should be at least a few dozen active civilizations in our Galaxy under the assumption that it takes 5 billion years for intelligent life to form on other planets, as on Earth,” Christopher Conselice, co-author of the study, said in a statement. “The idea is looking at evolution, but on a cosmic scale."
  • The new estimate factors in the likelihood that stars host Earth-like planets in their habitable zones and the history of star formation throughout the galaxy.
  • Under the study's strictest set of assumptions — which includes that stars that could host planets with intelligent life be similar in metal content to our Sun — the authors expect there should be 36 alien civilizations in the galaxy.

But, but, but: Even if there were three dozen intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, there's no guarantee that we'll ever interact with any of them.

  • According to the study, on average, these civilization are likely about 17,000 light-years away.
5. Out of this world reading list

Photo: NASA

FCC has "serious doubts" about SpaceX's broadband service (Marguerite Reardon, CNET)

The International Space Station is getting a new toilet this year (Meghan Bartels, Space.com)

NASA confirms JWST will miss March 2021 launch date (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

NASA selects new head of human spaceflight after agency shake-ups (Axios)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: Skywatching on Mars

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While this photo may not look like much at first, you, me and everyone we know is in it.

  • This panorama, taken by NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars, shows the spacecraft's view of the sky with Earth and Venus visible.
  • "Both planets appear as mere pinpoints of light, owing to a combination of distance and dust in the air; they would normally look like very bright stars," NASA said in a statement.
Miriam Kramer

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