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China Successfully Launches Its First Mars Rover to the Red Planet

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As most of North America went to bed last night, China was busy making history. At 12:41 a.m. EDT on July 23, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) launched its Tianwen-1 spacecraft, which carries the country’s very first Mars rover and orbiter. If China succeeds, it will be their first successful mission to Mars, and make them just the third nation in history to land on the Red Planet, after the U.S. and the Soviet Union. 

Tianwen-1 should reach Mars in February 2021, where the spacecraft will separate and deploy a Mars-orbiting satellite, as well as a lander and rover combo.

The orbiter’s capabilities are comparable to other spacecraft already circling Mars. It packs medium- and high-resolution cameras, plus radar and instruments to study Mars’ magnetism and chemical composition. But the lander/rover is the real star of the show. 

Once the lander touches down on solid ground, it will deploy a sophisticated, six-wheeled, solar-powered robotic rover. The 530-pound rover will travel across the martian surface looking for evidence of life on Mars, as well as studying the martian soil chemistry and searching for signs of past and present water. 

The mission’s goals are similar to those of NASA’s latest Mars rover, dubbed Perseverance, which is also set to launch between July 30 and August 15.

However, while NASA has recently built up a track record of successful rover landings, this will be China’s maiden attempt. History hasn’t been kind to first-timers on Mars. Even after four previous successful landings, NASA engineers still refer to their rover landing sequences as “seven minutes of terror.”

First Photo of Mars, Viking Lander 1976 - NASA

This is the first color image returned from NASA’s Viking I lander, taken July 21, 1976, the day after it touched down on Mars. (Credit: NASA)

Mars Mission Failures

The Red Planet is a notoriously hostile place to send a spacecraft. 

Humanity’s first two attempts to land on Mars ended in failure. In 1971, the Soviet Union’s Mars 2 spacecraft made it all the way to the surface, only to crash land. The Mars 3 mission, following right on its heels, landed on the surface, but then failed to send back a single full image. Five years later, the U.S. made it look easy when NASA’s Viking landers successfully touched, spending years returning pioneering data. 

But things haven’t always gone smooth since then. Dozens of other Mars missions have also failed. In fact, half of all missions to Mars didn’t survive. Perhaps most famously, NASA’s $327 million Mars Climate Orbiter turned into a fireball back in 1999. Why, you ask? One team of engineers used metric units and another used English units.

Fortunately, the odds of success have improved some recently, with NASA and other space agency’s deploying a string of pioneering missions. And in 2014, India put its Mars Orbiter Mission into orbit, becoming the first country to accomplish the feat on its first attempt.

But even some recent “successes” have been beset with problems. For example, NASA’s Mars InSight lander has gathered the first direct evidence of martian earthquakes, but it’s also spent over a year trying to drill more than a couple inches beneath the martian surface. The mission’s main goal is to reach a depth of some 16 feet.

Chinese Rovers

Despite the historic difficulty of landing on Mars, China may have a leg up. 

In the last 10 years, China has sent two rovers to the moon. Starting back in 2002, Chinese engineers began developing a lunar rover named Yutu, which ultimately deployed in 2010 and went on to become the longest operational lunar rover in history. In 2019, they followed that success up with the Yutu-2 rover, which became the first spacecraft to softly touch down on the farside of the moon. For the past year and a half, Yutu-2 has been uncovering new details about the ground beneath the mysterious lunar farside. 

But Mars is much farther away than the moon. Plus, it has significantly more gravity, as well as a thin-yet-noticeable atmosphere to overcome. So, it’s far harder to land on Mars than the moon. 

Thankfully for China, they don’t have to completely start from scratch. Their rover will also make use of lessons learned by NASA’s previous Mars rovers. For instance, Tianwen-1 will land using a system of parachutes, rockets and inflatable airbags similar to what NASA has employed in the past. (Due to the enormous size of NASA’s latest rovers, they now use a fascinating sky crane maneuver.)

This also isn’t China’s first attempt at reaching Mars.

In 2011, Russia and China partnered on the Phobos-Grunt mission. The spacecraft was designed to travel to Mars and land on its moon, Phobos, then return samples back to Earth. The mission would’ve also released China’s first Mars spacecraft, the Yinghuo-1 orbiter. However, a malfunction left Phobos-Grunt — and the Chinese orbiter — stuck in Earth orbit.  

This time, they hope things will be dramatically different. 

Life on Mars

The rover’s timing couldn’t be better. It’s set to arrive at perhaps the most fascinating point in the history of space exploration — as astronomers, planetary scientists, and biologists all attempt to understand the martian environment.

For decades now, scientists have known that the Red Planet once held vast oceans, and possibly life. But a string of tantalizing clues have recently surfaced suggesting that Mars’ water wasn’t confined to the ancient past. Rivers and lakes existed there surprisingly recently. And in some places, it appears there’s even still liquid water tucked away beneath the surface today. 

All of this makes some astronomers suspect we’ll eventually find evidence of life on Mars, whether it be past or present. 

And now they have a good idea of where to look, too. Orbiting spacecraft, as well as NASA’s Curiosity rover, have started to catch whiffs of methane gas drifting up from beneath Mars’ surface in some places. On Earth, such signals can be created by microbial life. 

To find out the source of the methane, space agencies will have to go to these places and collect samples. For example, NASA’s Perseverance rover will land in Jezero Crater, home to a former river delta, within days or weeks of Tianwen-1. Meanwhile, the Chinese orbiter will spend a few months surveying for an ideal place to land inside Utopia Planitia, according to mission scientists writing in Nature Astronomy.

The quest to solve Mars’ mysteries makes the name of China’s latest mission even more fitting. “Tianwen” comes from the title of an ancient Chinese poem, and it means “questions to heaven.”

And while Tianwen-1 and Perseverance are unlikely to definitely resolve the question of life on Mars, they both represent humanity’s most serious attempt to find an answer yet. Each space agency plans to follow up in the years ahead with missions that can go to Mars and return samples back to Earth. And, perhaps, those samples will bring us the first firm evidence of alien life.

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Women in the newsroom: Why South Africa leads the way

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Mahlatse Mahlase is group editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News, a major broadcaster in South Africa. It’s a role she would have been unlikely to fill 30 years ago, under the apartheid regime, whose hierarchy put Black women on a bottom tier.

But no matter where you look in the world, women’s leadership in the news media has lagged – and still does. South Africa, in fact, is a relative success story. Today, women lead nearly half of the country’s major publications and broadcasters, according to a recent analysis by Oxford University. That puts it ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even countries held up as models of gender parity, like Finland.

Yet South African women’s gains have been especially hard-won, and incomplete. Women hold few of journalism’s purse strings, for instance. 

Ms. Mahlase says she has reflected on representation through a new prism since she gave birth seven months ago to her first child, a boy. 

“I want my son to grow up in a world where he has female bosses,” she says. “I want him to grow up listening to women experts on the radio, hearing them as contributors to changing the world and not just as victims of an unfair system.”

Johannesburg

Nwabisa Makunga can point to the exact moment she knew she would become a journalist.

It was April 1993 and she was 11 years old, watching the TV broadcast of the funeral of assassinated anti-apartheid leader Chris Hani with her family in their living room. The presenter was a Black reporter named Noxolo Grootboom, and her powerful tribute to Mr. Hani brought Ms. Makunga’s parents to tears.

“She was a woman who looked like me, who spoke like me, telling the story of a man who had been so important to people from my community,” she recalls. “I said to myself – this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to be like Noxolo, and I’m going to tell stories.”

Three decades later, Ms. Makunga is the editor-in-chief of the Sowetan, one of South Africa’s most-circulated daily newspapers. She is part of a generation of women who have risen through the ranks to take leadership of many of the country’s most important news outlets. Today, these women – most of them Black, Asian, and multiracial – lead nearly half the country’s major publications and broadcasters, according to a recent analysis by Oxford University. That makes the country a global leader for women’s leadership in the media, putting it ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even countries held up as models of gender parity, like Finland.

And the achievement is doubly remarkable in South Africa, where only a generation ago the entire country was run largely by white men. Editors like Ms. Makunga grew up not only with few role models who looked like them, but also in a world where the media was used as a weapon of the apartheid regime, premised on white supremacy – enforcing a hierarchy in which they were the bottom tier.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images/File

A vendor sells a Daily Sun edition honoring former South African President Nelson Mandela’s birthday on July 18, 2013. The country’s transition to democracy opened up opportunities for many of today’s journalists.

Hard-won gains

Even after apartheid formally ended, these editors came up in newsrooms where its effects lingered. They were told their accents were “too African,” or their looks “too tempting.” Even as the newsrooms around them began to change from mostly white to mostly not, they still found themselves edged out of the pub trips and golf games where their male colleagues networked their way to the top.

“Make no mistake: Those statistics changing are the result of a fight,” says Mahlatse Mahlase, group editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News, a major breaking-news broadcaster. Women in South Africa’s newsrooms “have fought racism and they’ve also fought the patriarchy. The discrimination came from every side.”

Although they’ve now arrived, many of these same leaders note that South Africa’s media transformation remains incomplete. Women hold few of journalism’s purse strings, for instance. Just 19% of the board members at media companies here are female, according to a 2018 academic study of women in the media called “Glass Ceilings.” The vast majority of the country’s major media houses have a male CEO.

And while the proportion of Black, Asian, and multiracial women in the top echelons of South African media companies has grown from 6% in 2006 to 30% in 2018, that number still lags, in a country where they represent 46% of the population, according to the Glass Ceilings survey. Once they get there, meanwhile, they’re often placed under intense scrutiny and pressure.

“When men get to the top of their profession, they’re celebrated. When women get there, particularly Black women, there’s backlash, there’s trolling, there’s bullying,” says Glenda Daniels, an associate professor of media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the co-author of the Glass Ceilings study. She uses the term “Black” as it is frequently applied in South Africa, to describe anyone who is not white. “Women at the top find they’re often exhausted just proving over and over that they deserve to be in the room.”

“Newsrooms figured out they needed to mimic what was happening in society so they wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of history.” – Mapula Nkosi, editor of the Daily Sun

Coming up the ladder

In 1994, the same year Nelson Mandela took the oath as South Africa’s first Black president, an ambitious young reporter named Mapula Nkosi walked into the Johannesburg newsroom of the Weekly Mail, which made its name opposing apartheid, to begin her career as a cadet reporter.

When she looked up the ranks, she says, she saw only men. But all around her, the country had a new buzzword: transformation. The process was often fuzzy, but the objective was clear: The structures that ruled the country should look more like the people who lived in it.

“Those newsrooms figured out they needed to mimic what was happening in society so they wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of history,” says Ms. Nkosi, now the editor of the Daily Sun, the country’s most-circulated daily newspaper. “The whole time I was coming up I had people on one side of me saying, ‘We don’t understand why you’re in this position,’ and people on the other side saying, ‘We are so excited to see where you go.’”

Those competing forces followed many of South Africa’s women journalists through their rise. Each time they pulled themselves up another rung on the ladder, they heard whispers – that they only got this job because leadership wanted a woman, that they’d never make it.

But when they did, the conversation changed.

“When you do well, you become almost genderless,” says Paula Fray, a media consultant and the first woman to edit the Saturday Star, a major South African newspaper. “But if you don’t do well, then your failings represent your whole gender.”

Meanwhile, women leaders in the newsroom “carry the added responsibility of making these environments more welcoming for women,” says Mary Papayya, a veteran journalist and editor who now sits on the board of the South African Broadcasting Corp. That, she notes, is a particularly difficult task at a time when many outlets have seen their budgets slashed and are now contending with a pandemic that has made news reporting both more dangerous and less lucrative.

And the fight for change goes beyond who sits in the corner office. In South Africa, like many countries, men are disproportionately both the experts and subjects of news stories. A recent analysis of the South African media’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic by the organization Media Monitoring Africa, for instance, found that 80% of those quoted in stories about the virus were men.

Ms. Mahlase, the radio news editor, says she sees these kinds of statistics through a new prism since she gave birth seven months ago to her first child, a boy. 

“I want my son to grow up in a world where he has female bosses,” she says. “I want him to grow up listening to women experts on the radio, hearing them as contributors to changing the world and not just as victims of an unfair system.”

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Environment

Women in the newsroom: Why South Africa leads the way

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on

Mahlatse Mahlase is group editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News, a major broadcaster in South Africa. It’s a role she would have been unlikely to fill 30 years ago, under the apartheid regime, whose hierarchy put Black women on a bottom tier.

But no matter where you look in the world, women’s leadership in the news media has lagged – and still does. South Africa, in fact, is a relative success story. Today, women lead nearly half of the country’s major publications and broadcasters, according to a recent analysis by Oxford University. That puts it ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even countries held up as models of gender parity, like Finland.

Yet South African women’s gains have been especially hard-won, and incomplete. Women hold few of journalism’s purse strings, for instance. 

Ms. Mahlase says she has reflected on representation through a new prism since she gave birth seven months ago to her first child, a boy. 

“I want my son to grow up in a world where he has female bosses,” she says. “I want him to grow up listening to women experts on the radio, hearing them as contributors to changing the world and not just as victims of an unfair system.”

Johannesburg

Nwabisa Makunga can point to the exact moment she knew she would become a journalist.

It was April 1993 and she was 11 years old, watching the TV broadcast of the funeral of assassinated anti-apartheid leader Chris Hani with her family in their living room. The presenter was a Black reporter named Noxolo Grootboom, and her powerful tribute to Mr. Hani brought Ms. Makunga’s parents to tears.

“She was a woman who looked like me, who spoke like me, telling the story of a man who had been so important to people from my community,” she recalls. “I said to myself – this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to be like Noxolo, and I’m going to tell stories.”

Three decades later, Ms. Makunga is the editor-in-chief of the Sowetan, one of South Africa’s most-circulated daily newspapers. She is part of a generation of women who have risen through the ranks to take leadership of many of the country’s most important news outlets. Today, these women – most of them Black, Asian, and multiracial – lead nearly half the country’s major publications and broadcasters, according to a recent analysis by Oxford University. That makes the country a global leader for women’s leadership in the media, putting it ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even countries held up as models of gender parity, like Finland.

And the achievement is doubly remarkable in South Africa, where only a generation ago the entire country was run largely by white men. Editors like Ms. Makunga grew up not only with few role models who looked like them, but also in a world where the media was used as a weapon of the apartheid regime, premised on white supremacy – enforcing a hierarchy in which they were the bottom tier.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images/File

A vendor sells a Daily Sun edition honoring former South African President Nelson Mandela’s birthday on July 18, 2013. The country’s transition to democracy opened up opportunities for many of today’s journalists.

Hard-won gains

Even after apartheid formally ended, these editors came up in newsrooms where its effects lingered. They were told their accents were “too African,” or their looks “too tempting.” Even as the newsrooms around them began to change from mostly white to mostly not, they still found themselves edged out of the pub trips and golf games where their male colleagues networked their way to the top.

“Make no mistake: Those statistics changing are the result of a fight,” says Mahlatse Mahlase, group editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News, a major breaking-news broadcaster. Women in South Africa’s newsrooms “have fought racism and they’ve also fought the patriarchy. The discrimination came from every side.”

Although they’ve now arrived, many of these same leaders note that South Africa’s media transformation remains incomplete. Women hold few of journalism’s purse strings, for instance. Just 19% of the board members at media companies here are female, according to a 2018 academic study of women in the media called “Glass Ceilings.” The vast majority of the country’s major media houses have a male CEO.

And while the proportion of Black, Asian, and multiracial women in the top echelons of South African media companies has grown from 6% in 2006 to 30% in 2018, that number still lags, in a country where they represent 46% of the population, according to the Glass Ceilings survey. Once they get there, meanwhile, they’re often placed under intense scrutiny and pressure.

“When men get to the top of their profession, they’re celebrated. When women get there, particularly Black women, there’s backlash, there’s trolling, there’s bullying,” says Glenda Daniels, an associate professor of media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the co-author of the Glass Ceilings study. She uses the term “Black” as it is frequently applied in South Africa, to describe anyone who is not white. “Women at the top find they’re often exhausted just proving over and over that they deserve to be in the room.”

“Newsrooms figured out they needed to mimic what was happening in society so they wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of history.” – Mapula Nkosi, editor of the Daily Sun

Coming up the ladder

In 1994, the same year Nelson Mandela took the oath as South Africa’s first Black president, an ambitious young reporter named Mapula Nkosi walked into the Johannesburg newsroom of the Weekly Mail, which made its name opposing apartheid, to begin her career as a cadet reporter.

When she looked up the ranks, she says, she saw only men. But all around her, the country had a new buzzword: transformation. The process was often fuzzy, but the objective was clear: The structures that ruled the country should look more like the people who lived in it.

“Those newsrooms figured out they needed to mimic what was happening in society so they wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of history,” says Ms. Nkosi, now the editor of the Daily Sun, the country’s most-circulated daily newspaper. “The whole time I was coming up I had people on one side of me saying, ‘We don’t understand why you’re in this position,’ and people on the other side saying, ‘We are so excited to see where you go.’”

Those competing forces followed many of South Africa’s women journalists through their rise. Each time they pulled themselves up another rung on the ladder, they heard whispers – that they only got this job because leadership wanted a woman, that they’d never make it.

But when they did, the conversation changed.

“When you do well, you become almost genderless,” says Paula Fray, a media consultant and the first woman to edit the Saturday Star, a major South African newspaper. “But if you don’t do well, then your failings represent your whole gender.”

Meanwhile, women leaders in the newsroom “carry the added responsibility of making these environments more welcoming for women,” says Mary Papayya, a veteran journalist and editor who now sits on the board of the South African Broadcasting Corp. That, she notes, is a particularly difficult task at a time when many outlets have seen their budgets slashed and are now contending with a pandemic that has made news reporting both more dangerous and less lucrative.

And the fight for change goes beyond who sits in the corner office. In South Africa, like many countries, men are disproportionately both the experts and subjects of news stories. A recent analysis of the South African media’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic by the organization Media Monitoring Africa, for instance, found that 80% of those quoted in stories about the virus were men.

Ms. Mahlase, the radio news editor, says she sees these kinds of statistics through a new prism since she gave birth seven months ago to her first child, a boy. 

“I want my son to grow up in a world where he has female bosses,” she says. “I want him to grow up listening to women experts on the radio, hearing them as contributors to changing the world and not just as victims of an unfair system.”

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Trump Administration Penalizes Chinese Officials for Hong Kong Crackdown

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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Friday imposed sanctions on 11 senior Chinese Communist Party officials and their Hong Kong allies, including chief executive Carrie Lam, over their role in cracking down on political dissent in the southern Chinese territory.

These are the first sanctions against officials from China and Hong Kong over suppression of pro-democracy protests and dissent in the territory. They are being imposed as actions following an executive order President Trump signed last month seeking to punish China for its repression in Hong Kong.

“The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong and we will use our tools and authorities to target those undermining their autonomy,” Steven T. Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said in a statement.

The action is another in a series of measures the Trump administration has taken in recent months to ratchet up pressure on Beijing. Last month, the administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese government, including a senior member of the Communist Party, over human rights abuses against the largely Muslim Uighur minority.

Beijing announced in June that it was imposing a new national security law in Hong Kong to grant security agencies expansive powers to crack down on dissent.

Since then, American officials have debated how to get Beijing to roll back the law or how to penalize the action.

Last month, Mr. Trump signed an executive order ending the special status that the United States grants Hong Kong in diplomatic and trade relations, saying Hong Kong was no longer an autonomous entity, and officials are now beginning to treat the territory like mainland China.

Some administration officials had wanted Mr. Trump to announce during the signing that his government was imposing sanctions on Ms. Lam and other officials in China and Hong Kong. The president declined to do so then.

The current flurry of actions against China dovetails with a core part of Mr. Trump’s campaign strategy. His campaign aides are trying to show Mr. Trump is hitting China hard in order to shift the national conversation from his failures on managing the coronavirus pandemic and the economy.

The initial virus outbreak began in central China, and Mr. Trump has blamed Chinese officials for failing to contain it, though he also praised China’s leader, Xi Jinping, for efforts this winter.

Some of the administration’s China hawks are trying to set the two nations on a course for long-term confrontation and ensure that relations remain in a state of open rivalry even if Democratic candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins the November election.

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