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One of NASA’s newest missions to asteroids is being led by a female astrophysicist

A digital image of one of two NASA Discovery missions announced early this year. Features a robotic
Screenshot/NASA
A digital image of one of two NASA Discovery missions announced early this year.
  • Katherine Ellen Foley
By Katherine Ellen Foley

Health and science reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

It’s nice to see 2017 start on a note of progress. NASA began the new year by announcing two new missions to explore asteroids, the oldest parts of our solar system. These two projects were winnowed down from five finalists; four of them, including one of the winners, were led by women.

On Jan. 4, NASA released plans for its newest Discovery missions, which are typically shorter projects that take advantage of robotic technologies and are capped around $500 million. Their goal is to learn about what happened just 10 million years—a long time for us, but just the blink of a galactic eye—after our sun formed.

“Lucy will visit a target-rich environment of Jupiter’s mysterious Trojan asteroids, while Psyche will study a unique metal asteroid that’s never been visited before,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC, said in a statement.

Lucy, named after our tree-loving early hominid ancestor, will explore the interstellar rocks whose orbits march around the sun in Jupiter’s neck of the woods. Harold Levison, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado is leading the project set to launch in 2021.

The second project is called Psyche, named for 16 Psyche, the massive metallic asteroid thought to be made out of iron and nickel—just like our own planet’s core—that also resides in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. (Most asteroids are made of icy rocks.) It will launch two years later under the leadership of Lindy Elkins-Tanton, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University. “[The mission] will help us gain insights into the metal interior of all rocky planets in our solar system, including Earth,” she said in a statement.

Elkins-Tanton’s leadership matters for the field. In addition to being extremely well-qualified—she’s been awarded multiple fellowships and awards for her work from organizations like National Academies of Sciences, the National Science Foundation, and Oxford University—she’s a woman in a field with a pronounced gender gap.

One study (paywall) published in 2016 by researchers at the University of Washington found the gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields may be due to a pervasive masculine culture. Personality stereotypes of male scientists and the idea that women are simply less able to do math and science are fueled by pop culture references and the fact that there are fewer women in leadership roles in the sciences. “Because there are so few of us, if one woman struggles with something or makes a mistake, some guys will presume that all women are like that (even if there are guys who struggle more),” Jen Goldbeck, a computer scientist University of Maryland, told Mashable.

Worse, it is rapidly became apparent that sexual harassment is rife in the labs doing STEM work.

Leaders in these fields are starting to take notice: the American Astronomical Society meeting held in Grapevine, Texas Jan. 3 through Jan. 7 is featuring multiple panels on the underrepresentation of women and minorities in the field. Ideally, awareness of the problem will lead to even more women competing for these grants, which will ultimately lead to better space exploration.

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