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Hovering, Flying, and Hopping Across the Solar Sytem

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If you’re like most people, you’ve dreamed of flying (studies show that more than half of us have done it). If you’re curious about the universe, you’ve probably also dreamed about visiting other planets. And if you’re willing to wait about nine months, you are in luck—because after that, you won’t have to dream anymore.

Ladies and gentlemen, NASA is about to go flying on Mars.

The Perseverance rover, scheduled to land on February 18, 2021, is carrying a grapefruit-sized helicopter named Ingenuity strapped to its belly. Assuming all goes well with the touchdown, Perseverance will settle into its new home for about two months. Then it will release a small debris shield, fire a pyrotechnic cable-cutter, unleash a spring-loaded arm, and set the little Ingenuity flyer free.

After the rover has rolled a safe distance away, Ingenuity will soak up sunlight to charge its six lithium-ion batteries, like a newly emerged butterfly drying its wings. Then it will spin its twin rotors up to 2,400 rpm and begin a series of exploratory flights on Mars. That ultra-high rotor speed, necessary to generate lift in the thin air of Mars, means each of Ingenuity’s flights won’t last long (officially just 90 seconds) nor will it go very far (1,000 meters maximum). Still it’s the principle of the thing. The first flight of the Wright Brothers covered just 37 meters.

Ingenuity will establish an equally impressive precedent: the first powered flight on a world beyond Earth. It will surely not be the last.

Science and science fiction visionaries have been sketching out ideas for flying on Mars for decades, even before the existence of NASA and space rocketry. The 1918 film A Trip to Mars, one of the earliest science-fiction movies, depicted a giant, buglike Martian airship. NASA’s favorite ex-Nazi, Wernher von Braun, wrote a book-length outline for a human expedition to Mars, which prominently included air travel on the Red Planet; space artist Chesley Bonestell gave visual life to his ideas in his 1953 painting, Exploring Mars. No wonder, then, that NASA engineers are already mulling ideas about how to “add another dimension to the way we explore worlds in the future.”

"Exploring Mars" by Chesley Bonestell, based on ideas drawn up by Wernher von Braun. (Credit: Chesley Bonestell)

“Exploring Mars” by Chesley Bonestell, based on ideas drawn up by Wernher von Braun. (Credit: Chesley Bonestell)

Actually, it’s much more than just ideas. NASA already has another off-world flyer approved and under development—one that is even more audacious than the Ingenuity helicopter. In April of 2026, the agency is scheduled to launch Dragonfly, a nuclear powered octocopter (yes, eight rotors), on an eight-year journey to Saturn’s giant haze-shrouded moon, Titan. After touching down on Titan’s Shangri-La dune fields, Dragonfly will set off on a daring set of long-distance excursions, essentially carrying out a whole new mission each time it lands.

Dragonfly’s capabilities will utterly eclipse those of Ingenuity. Titan has lower gravity than Mars, and its atmosphere is 200 times thicker, making flight far easier there. Also, Dragonfly will carry its own radiothermal energy source, so it won’t have to rely on trickles of electricity from a small solar panel. The net result is that NASA expects its Titan ‘copter will end up traveling a total of about 175 kilometers over the course of a nearly three-year campaign—and judging from past NASA efforts, those numbers are probably highly conservative underestimates.

Dragonfly as it will appear after landing on Titan in 2034. The 450-kilogram flyer will sample the surface through its feet each time it touches down. (Credit: NASA/JHU-APL)

Dragonfly as it will appear after landing on Titan in 2034. The 450-kilogram flyer will sample the surface through its feet each time it touches down. (Credit: NASA/JHU-APL)

Titan is a fascinating target for this kind of exploration. It is a huge world, nearly as large as the planet Mercury, covered in cold organic compounds. Methane and ethane fall as rain, flow in rivers, and collect in lakes—a hydrological cycle composed of liquid natural gas instead of water. Titan’s dunes are probably composed of tar-like compounds, blowing over a bedrock of deeply frozen water ice. The exotic carbon chemistry happening on Titan today may resemble the reactions that occurred on Earth before life appeared 4 billion years ago. We want to see as much as we can of this unique place.

For now, there are no other flying missions planned for other worlds. But flying is not the only novel form of space transit in development. On small objects like comets and asteroids, hopping is an efficient way to get around. Really, it’s almost the only way to get around, since the surface gravity is so low.

The European Space Agency’s Philae lander did an accidental hop on Comet 67P after failing to harpoon itself to the surface. The Japanese Space Agency’s Hayabusa-2 spacecraft dropped three active hoppers onto the asteroid Ryugu. (I wrote a separate account of their amazing journey.) The Hayabusa-2 probe did its own kiss-and-bounce rendezvous with the asteroid to collect samples. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx is about to do a similar maneuver with the asteroid Bennu; Japan’s Martain Moons Exploration (MMX) probe will perform yet another kiss-and-bounce on the Martian moon Phobos around 2025.

More sophisticated forms of space-hopping may be coming soon. Phil Metzger at the University of Central Florida is testing a robot called WINE that would visit a comet or asteroid, extract water from its surface, and use it to execute a series of steam-powered jumps. NASA recently funded the development of a similar concept called SPARROW, which could hop across the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

There could be a future for ballooning on other worlds as well. The Soviets have already pioneered this type of transit with the Vega balloon probe, which was deployed in the upper atmosphere of Venus in 1985. If NASA approves a new Venus explorer—as I fervently hope it will—a new-generation balloon experiment could be floating around the planet in the coming decade.

Any why stop there? I mentioned earlier that Titan has lakes, which would be prime locations for a future space boat or space submarine. NASA seriously considered a proposal for a Titan boat (the TiME mission) but passed it over in favor of the Mars InSight lander. Still, the concept could easily make a comeback. There are also concepts on the drawing board for Titan submarine and a tunneling machine on Europa.

There’s even an experiment underway that could make it possible to navigate the oceans of Europa, if that tunneling machine can manage to break through the ice. If you dream of swimming like a fish, this would be the mission for you. Beneath its icy crust, Europa has more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined. There may be volcanic vents below, warming and fertilizing the ocean. Many astrobiologists now consider Europa the most likely place to find life elsewhere in the solar sytem.

Flying on Mars is a breeze compared to traveling to Europa, breaking through 10 kilometers of ice, and exploring the pitch-black ocean below. But if we can master that tremendous challenge…damn, what we find could be well worth the perils of getting there.


For more science news, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

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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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Continue Reading

Environment

Women in the newsroom: Why South Africa leads the way

Published

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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