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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)


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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A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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