How many space explorers are women? This infographic has the stats

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in various sectors, from politics and banking to engineering and computing. But what about when it comes to space exploration?

In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman sent to space. (Image: RS Components)
In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman sent to space. (Image: RS Components)


It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in various sectors, from politics and banking to engineering and computing. But what about when it comes to space exploration?

In 1963 Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman sent to space, just two years after her male counterpart Yuri Gagarin. At the time only 12 other people had been to space so it was seemingly a strong start for women. However, as investment in space exploration grew, so did the gender gap.

Today, despite making up almost 50 percent of the world’s population, women make up less than 11 percent of history’s space explorers.


In terms of numbers, unsurprisingly it's the U.S. that has sent the most women into space. In fact, since 1961 a total of 46 female explorers have blasted off under the American flag, including the likes of Peggy Whitson who currently holds the American record for most consecutive days in space. On face value, 46 women sent to space sounds impressive, especially when compared to other wealthy nations like the U.K. which has only sent one woman into Earth orbit. However, it’s the percentages that really highlight the male and female divide, with women making up just 14 percent of all Americans sent to space; only France and Russia have sent a smaller percentage of women.

Despite its small numbers, the U.K. actually has the highest figure on the list at 50 percent, having sent just one woman, Helen Sharman in 1991, and one man, Tim Peake in 2015, into space.

Russia’s four women, making up just 3 percent of its total, is disappointing considering the nation's historic role in this launching women into space. It was 55 years ago this year that Russia sent the world’s first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space.

Germany is another country with a disappointing percentage. Despite sending 11 nationals into space and being one of the largest contributors to the European Space Agency, the country is yet to have a female astronaut. Last year a project was launched to send the first German woman to space by 2020, but as a private venture unconnected to a state-led space agency, the mission is completely reliant on donors and sponsors.


On the other side of the table, although numbers are still small, countries like Canada, China, and Japan have the highest percentage of female space explorers, sending six women to space between them.

Laura Giddings, Education Events Manager at RS Components, says:

There are many factors at play as to why so few women have ventured into space. Clearly historical attitudes regarding the roles of women in society are still impacting many industries. By highlighting this lack of female representation in space science and engineering, we’re hoping to add to the global conversation on gender equality and encourage more women to pursue careers in these fulfilling industries.

The fact is, women make up 50% of the population and, if we want to create a world for everyone, should have an equal voice in all sectors. With space now attracting vast amounts of private funding from companies like SpaceX, and with the pace of technological advancements in the sector, space exploration and all it has to offer will no doubt play a huge role in our future. Let’s make sure women are there helping to shape it.”

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This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
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  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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