Since its launch on December 25, 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been holding the attention of scientists, students, and space enthusiasts alike. Notably, Canadian researchers, engineers, and astronomers played a critical role in this $10-billion, 25-year-planned, tennis-court-sized telescope that is providing new and incredible views of our universe.
JWST looks out into the universe in wavelengths that our eyes cannot see. It is an infrared telescope, looking at the heat coming off some of the oldest and most distant objects in the universe, as well as the infrared radiation from neighbouring planets and nearby regions of star formation. The telescope is huge – its mirror is 18 hexagonal segments with an overall diameter of 6.5 meters. As well, its instruments must be kept very cold, approximately -230 C, for them to see the oldest and most distant objects in the universe. To protect its instruments from the heat of the sun, there is a sun shield that consists of 5 thin layers and is approximately the size of a tennis court. It had to be perfectly folded to fit in the rocket for launch, and then needed to unfold itself after launch in space. The side of the sunshield that faces the sun heats up to approximately 85 C, whereas the side with the instruments on the cold side of the sunshield is roughly -230 C!
JWST was a multi-country mission, requiring the expertise of NASA in the United States, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. Importantly, the Canadian Space Agency contributed one instrument with two necessary components to JWST: the Fine Guidance Sensor and NIRISS.
The Fine Guidance Sensor is the component that allows JWST to stay perfectly pointed at exactly the place it is supposed to look. Without this guidance sensor, JWST would not be able to be still while pointing in a location – all of the stars and objects in the image would be blurred from movement!
NIRISS is an acronym for the Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph. This instrument allows scientists to take images in infrared wavelengths and its special purpose is to split the light from all objects in an image into tiny rainbows of light – spectra. The full spectrum of light of an object allows us to learn about the chemical elements that make up the objects we’re viewing. For example, if JWST is peering into the atmosphere of an exoplanet, we would study the atmosphere’s spectra to learn what elements are in that atmosphere. Here on Earth, our atmosphere has oxygen that we breath – but those oxygen molecules in the air would react with other molecules in the atmosphere and be depleted if they weren’t frequently regenerated by plants and algae here on Earth. If we see oxygen in the atmospheres of distant planets, there might be life there! In the atmosphere of the exoplanet WASP-96 b – a hot gas giant like Jupiter, but very close to its host star – we can see the molecular fingerprint of water, so there are likely clouds in this planet’s atmosphere.
There are many Canadian scientists, researchers, and students carefully looking over new images and data from JWST, and there are new and beautiful images being shared frequently!
At Saint Mary’s University in Halifax Nova Scotia, Dr. Marcin Sawicki is part of a team of researchers carefully looking over the data from JWST. They have recently published an article1 about a galaxy that they call the “Sparkler” galaxy – a large, distant galaxy that we are seeing when the universe was only 4.5 billion years old, or about a third of its current age. Incredibly, they’ve found globular clusters around this galaxy – and these globular clusters look like small sparkles around the galaxy. In our own Milky Way Galaxy, we have roughly 150 globular clusters – clusters of hundreds of thousands of stars, tightly packed together like a ball of stars. These clusters are tricky to study because they’re very, very old objects – generally around 12-13 billion years old, and it is difficult to precisely measure their ages. When we are looking at globular clusters from when the universe was only 4.5 billion years old, it is much easier to estimate their specific ages because it is generally easier to be more precise about an age with a younger object.
In exchange for Canada’s important instruments, which cost roughly $200 million dollars for Canada to contribute (roughly 2% of the overall cost of JWST), Canadian researchers are guaranteed to have at least 5% of the total observing time on JWST’s instruments. There are many programs that Canadian scientists will lead and these are summarized on the Canadian Space Agency’s website.2
Given the incredible images that have already been produced with JWST and its expected operating lifetime of about 10 years (hopefully more3!), there will be much more wonder, inspiration, knowledge, and discoveries to come.
I encourage all readers to follow along with JWST’s journey and newly-released images, available to the public on the Webb Space Telescope website.4
I’ve been the Program Manager for the WISEatlantic program since 2013 and during this time I’ve had the privilege of observing hundreds of girls interacting with role models who look like them and who work in all kinds of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers.
All our signature Girls Get WISE Events, one-day retreats and summer camps, feature a round-robin style mentoring session where small groups of participants meet and chat with women working in various STEM careers. Upon reviewing the evaluations from these events, where we ask participants to rank all the sessions on a scale from 1-5, our role model sessions average a 4.3. This isn’t surprising to me as the participants often leave this session very excited, and this is above hands-on STEM sessions like coding or extracting DNA from fruit! The importance of exposing girls to women STEM role models cannot be understated. In Canada only 20% of STEM jobs are occupied by women (Perreault et al, 2018), even though women make up nearly half of the Canadian workforce (47.4%). Diversity breeds innovation, it allows for different perspectives and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking, just what we need to help tackle the important issues of our time, such as climate change. As the effects of climate change disproportionately impact women around the world, we need more women in STEM to be part of the solution. The majority of girls that WISEatlantic engages with are between the ages of 12 and 16, the age when they may be starting to seriously consider what sort of career they may want to pursue. Research with girls in this age group by González-Pérez et al (2020) showed that role-model intervention has a positive and significant effect on mathematics enjoyment, importance attached to math, expectations of success in math, and girls’ aspirations in STEM, and a negative effect on gender stereotypes. This study was done with 304 girls in similar role model arrangements to ours, informal with multiple diverse female role models, and ensuring that role models speak to how their jobs help society. Our own research has also shown that engaging girls in this way significantly impacts their interest in pursuing these professions (Franz-Odendaal et al. 2020). It’s encouraging to have data that backs-up what I’ve seen anecdotally through our own role model sessions; that exposing young girls to women role models in a variety of STEM careers helps them to see themselves in those careers in the future. Here is a snippet of feedback we’ve received from girls at various Girls Get WISE events, this feedback was taken from our general ‘leave a comment’ section of our evaluations: “The role model session helped to round out questions I had about university.” “The Role Model session was really great because you get to explore various careers and see how it worked for those people and how their hard work paid off.” “Really enjoyed hearing about different jobs from the role models.” It can be easy to assume that the girls would be more interested in the hands-on STEM activities during our events, and for some this is the case, but for a good portion of the participants connecting with role models leaves a lasting and positive impression. Another activity that we’ve done with participants, one we call ‘Budgeting for Life’, has been a big hit. In this activity the girls randomly choose either a STEM career or a non-STEM career and plan a budget around the typical salary for their career. The girls use a budget template on Excel and have to account for typical expenses such as rent/mortgage, transportation, food, etc. We have them search for and find a place to live that fits within their budget and discuss discretionary spending. Through this type of activity the girls learn quite quickly the typical salary difference between a STEM and non-STEM job and just how much things cost, which is always more than they expect! We’ve had comments from participants that they wished this activity was longer they enjoyed it so much. I think activities like this paired with exposure to STEM role models can be very beneficial in showcasing the positive aspects of a career in STEM, and hopefully encourage more girls to seriously consider these careers. You may be wondering how YOU as a parent, caregiver, or teacher can assist with showcasing women STEM role models to the girl(s) in your life, here are a few ways:
But above all, encourage girls to be curious and don’t miss an opportunity to show them that women ARE doing STEM jobs, excelling at them, and so can they! References: Franz-Odendaal, TA, French F, Joy, P and Blotnicky K. 2020. Math self-efficacy and the likelihood of pursuing a STEM-based career: a comparative analysis of girls versus boys and the impacts of an all-girls Science camp. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education. González-Pérez, S., Mateos de Cabo, R., Sáinz, M. (2020). Girls in STEM: Is It a Female Role-Model Thing? Frontiers in Psychology, Vol 11. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.02204 Perreault, A., Franz-Odendaal, T., Langelier, E., Farenhorst, A., Mavriplis, C., Shannon, L. (2018). Analysis of the distribution of gender in STEM fields in Canada. Version 1.1.
Over the last few years I have had the opportunity and honor of interviewing and photographing amazing Atlantic Canadian women in the STEM fields for a WISEatlantic project called the “Career Spotlight Booklet Series”. I say honor, as I was blown away by the talent these women emulated. Each one of them made me feel welcomed (even though I thought I would be intimated!) and all were excited to share with me their educational and career experiences and triumphs.
To date, I have completed two books in the series, “Women in Science” and “Women in Engineering” and presently in the process of completing “Indigenous Women in STEM”. You can find these two booklets on the WISEatlantic website, on the resource page, and they have also been distributed to some schools in Atlantic Canada.
A common theme throughout the interviews was the fact that if you don’t know what you want to do right now, don’t worry! You can always change directions. Just do “something” and the rest will follow, and if you do change your mind, that’s okay too! For instance, one woman I interviewed never intended to be a professor as she thought she was an introvert and hated speaking in front of people, but she found once she had the expertise and experience she became more confident.
Another common theme was that you may think you want to do one thing but may end up doing something completely different and unrelated and that’s okay also. For example, one woman I interviewed thought she wanted to be a veterinarian but when she took a class in Animal Biology she realized it wasn’t for her.
Creativity was also a universal theme throughout. Almost every one of these amazing women had a creative side they nourished including a writer, artist, and photographer.
Other Common pieces of advice included:
I interviewed one amazing lady who had completed a geology degree and then decided she really wanted to be an aerospace engineer so she did and now she is working on designing a new lighter and more flexible space suit at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for NASA.
I also interviewed a Biomedical engineer who is in the medical field researching the maternal make-up of the heart and how heart valves are remodeled during pregnancy. I learned about one female working on a vaccine for ovarian cancer, a biologist who monitors areas for the presence of whales using their sounds, and another woman who is researching new sustainable ways to make better plastics like water bottles.
Did you know that you can get paid while doing your Masters and PhD’s?! Yes, you are going to school but it’s a job too! I also learned that it may seem like a long time in school, but everyone I interviewed said the time goes fast.
When asked about their educational path all the women completed an undergrad degree, Masters degree and most even PhD’s!
Some of the many broad impacts these amazing scientists and engineers have had on society include:
All these women had a vision of equal opportunity for everyone and equal representation, including pay, promotion and gender equality, as well as hope that more women excelled to positions of leadership.
So yes, I learned lots of great things, including Scientists are everyday people and they all want to exceed!
By Jeanette McPherson, WISEatlantic Assistant
From the time she was 17, Wally Funk knew she wanted to be an astronaut. She had an attitude that made her excel anytime she was told she could not or should not do something, and in the 1960s when all NASA astronauts were male, she fought for herself and her colleagues to fly into space as well.
Unfortunately, that never happened. A group of thirteen women advocated for the opportunity to fly alongside the chosen male astronauts. These women were often deemed the “Mercury 13,” a play on the name “Mercury,” the name of the program sending the first astronauts into orbit from the United States during the Space Race between the US and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Another name for the group, however, was the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs). These women went through the same incredibly rigorous testing that the male astronauts did. Funk and others even surpassed the males in many tasks. Funk spent more than 10 hours in a sensory deprivation tank to simulate vertigo, and researchers ended the test only due to wanting to go home.
Despite the years of Funk and her colleagues proving they were fit to be astronauts, the United States did not send a woman into space until 1983 with Sally Ride, more than 20 years after Wally Funk fought for a chance to fly. In fact, until the astronaut selection in 1978 (where Ride was selected to be an astronaut, along with 5 other women and 29 men), all astronaut candidates in the US were required to have military jet test pilot experience. Since no women at the time were allowed to gain this experience, they were eliminated no matter what their other qualifications would be.
Wally Funk has been a pilot, a flight instructor, and more. She has logged 19,600 flight hours and trained more than 3000 students to fly. She earned her pilot’s license at just 17 and has a number of other “firsts”, such as first female flight instructor at a US military base. Not until this summer, at age 82, did she finally get a chance to fly into space like she had prepared for nearly 60 years ago.
The space flight company Blue Origin had their first crewed launch in July this year, and company founder (and passenger on the flight) Jeff Bezos asked Funk to join him for the launch. Funk had been a ticket holder on another commercial space flight with Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, who coincidentally flew their first suborbital flight just days before the Blue Origin flight that Funk was invited on. Despite her being more than qualified, it took capitalistic competition to finally get Funk into space.
In the video released by Bezos after he asked Funk to join him on the first crewed Blue Origin flight, Funk recalls that she repeatedly asked NASA to be an astronaut, but she had been told “Wally, you’re a girl, you can’t do that,” to which she very passionately responded “Guess what, it doesn’t matter what you are, you can still do it if you want to do it!”
In Canada, the first astronaut selection was in 1983, and of the six chosen, just one – Roberta Bonda – was a woman. Of the 14 total astronauts chosen in Canada, just three in total have been women, most recently selected was Jenni Sidey-Gibbons in 2017.
Of all 3772 astronaut applications submitted by Canadians in August 2016 for the 2017 selection, just 24% of the applicants were women, according to the Canadian Space Agency. Having one of two chosen astronauts in 2017 be a woman is a great achievement when only 24% of the applicants were female. The candidates went through many tests, such as team-building tests, endurance tests, cognitive tests, and many strenuous tests to assess their ability to remain calm and productive in stressful environments, further proving Funk’s response that no matter what anyone says, you can do hard things if you want to do them.
When Funk returned from her spaceflight, she said the flight was “incredible.” Bezos described her during the flights as “never nervous,” which makes sense given that she had prepared for years to handle every possible outcome as an astronaut. Hilariously, when there was a 6-minute delay prior to launch, Funk said “Are we going or not?” impatient to go. She said “It was so easy, it was just incredible,” stating “I want to go again” while speaking to reporters after landing.
Funk proclaimed that nothing has ever gotten in her way, and that truly seems to be the case.
By Tiffany Fields, WISEatlantic Educational Assistant
Diversity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) drives innovation and creative ideas in the field, because people with different backgrounds and perspectives can find new ways to solve problems. Increasing representation and inclusion of marginalized groups in this field would increase opportunities for these groups and advance equity. Moreover, increasing participation of different groups in this field would grow the field overall, contributing to the economy and scientific advancement. However, STEM fields have historically been male-dominated and associated with masculinity in the minds of many. While there is a substantial body of literature on women’s inclusion in science, LGBTQ+ representation in STEM is something we know less about.
A new study by Cech and Waidzunas (2021) details the disparity in STEM experiences between LGBTQ+ people and their straight counterparts in the US. In surveying a sample of 25,324 full-time STEM professionals, 1,006 of whom were LGBTQ+, they found LGBTQ+ individuals were having worse experiences in STEM across a number of dimensions. The factors they examined were career opportunities, harassment, professional devaluation (colleagues devaluing or discrediting their STEM expertise), social exclusion (not “fitting in” or being invited to things), health and wellness, and intentions to leave STEM.
LGBTQ+ individuals in the sample had fewer perceived career opportunities and less resources. They were also less comfortable “whistleblowing” (i.e. reporting harassment or discrimination without retaliation). Significantly more LGBTQ+ individuals in their sample were experiencing professional devaluation and social exclusion. LGBTQ+ respondents were more likely to experience harassment and negative mental health effects, and significantly more LGBTQ+ respondents were considering leaving STEM than their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts.
These authors also did an intersectional analysis and found that transgender and gender non-binary respondents reported more health and wellness issues, and were more likely to consider leaving STEM than their cisgender sexual minority counterparts. Similarly, LGBTQ+ women and LGBTQ+ individuals of colour were more likely than LGBTQ+ men and LGBTQ+ white individuals, respectively, to experience harassment and professional devaluation at work.
Though North America has come a long way in terms of marriage equality and other LGBTQ+ rights, this evidence shows us there is still more work to be done to include LGBTQ+ individuals equally and equitably across all sectors of society. Moreover, more research needs to be done in Canada, as most of the current literature is based on US samples. WISEatlantic is currently conducting research with Canadian LGBTQ+ postdocs in STEM, so stay tuned!
There are several organizations focused on LGBTQ+ inclusion and visibility in STEM, which can be checked out at these links! There even is one in Atlantic Canada, QAtCanSTEM:
By Drew Burchell, WISEatlantic Research Assistant
Cech, E. A., & Waidzunas, T. J. (2021). Systemic inequalities for LGBTQ professionals in STEM. Science Advances, 7(3), eabe0933
Career experience in adolescence is one of the most crucial building blocks of life that many individuals do not have the opportunity to encounter. For the age groups of 12-16-year olds, experience is what derives conversation in order for them to make career decisions in high school that will impact their future.
Discovering mathematical talent or falling in love with human anatomy, can influence minds and allow students to discover their passion. But, the lack of exposure to a range of different opportunities can limit students to only certain or “main” career options that they may not be interested in. Specifically, although the representation of women has increased in areas of STEM, there is still a significant lack in areas such as engineering. I previously read that women made up 34% of STEM bachelor’s degree holders and only 23% of science and technology workers and are under-represented in these fields. Due to this, it is evident now more than ever that opportunities must be presented to young women in order to expand their knowledge on incredible STEM career options.
One of the most incredible opportunities that I took part in and allowed me to expand my interest in STEM was the Girls Get WISE Science Summer Camp. The camp was a week-long event that exposes young women to the sciences, technology, engineering, and math. The activities were so valuable because they were educational along with enjoyable. In particular, some of them included hatching and growing zebrafish, learning basic coding, the process of welding, forensic science, engineering challenges and over 10 more activities. In particular, the zebrafish lab was one of the unforgettable STEM activities that I participated in. The lab activity allowed the campers to view and assist in the process of hatching zebrafish eggs. We learnt about the temperature they resided in, the parts of the embryo, and even basic lab rules. It gave youth such as myself the opportunity to use petri dishes, pipettes, and microscopes. The exposure to a biology lab at a young age allowed me to be more informed when I entered the Pre-IB program in high school. Although my biology class was fast paced, I was able to easily catch up because I knew how to use a microscope and understood the safety rules of a lab that I learned in the WISE camp. Another activity included welding with the NSCSC. In my mind, welding was just a small job done by construction workers, but what I did not know is that it is one of the most important pieces to an industrial site. All the campers and I got first-hand experience on wielding through a VR simulator that gave us an understanding on the level of difficulty. The camp was an absolutely incredible experience and the hands-on activities made it worthwhile.
By Shabad Kaur
Science communication is a growing field. Its purpose is to educate the general public on science issues or research that is relevant to them, so they are able to form educated opinions and decisions. Our world is evolving rapidly around us, whether it’s the newest technological innovation, species or disease, the topics are endless. We are in a time where scientific changes happen every day and for us to be able to thrive and adapt to these changes, we all need to understand what we are up against.
People are flooded with information from so many different sources whether it’s through newspapers, television or social media. This means that as scientists, we need to communicate our information effectively so that our message resonates with the public. Social media can be a great medium for positive connected communication, but it has also changed how society interprets scientific facts. Opinions are now taken at face value and everyone seems to be the expert, except the real experts! This is a huge issue that needs to be addressed and using effective science communication will help. The public deserve evidence-based facts so they can form their own educated opinion on topics that effect their everyday life. Communication is a complex human interaction that can be easily misunderstood, which is why science communication is a crucial type of communication. Using clear, concise science communication allows the public to have access to relevant and understandable science-based information.
People wonder why scientists even need special science communicators to relay their messages. Why should they need other people to share their work? A good scientist should be a good communicator. This is a lesson that could be taught along with cell theory, organic chemistry and Newton’s laws in Science degrees. The whole point of Science is to discover new things and share them with people. The reality is that not everyone understands complex science (often because it is full of scientific jargon), but that doesn’t mean their right to understand should be taken away. Science communication is a field that is always developing because science is ever evolving. Science communication creates lots of room for collaboration and it utilizes creative ways to incorporate science literacy into everyone’s lives. The fact of the matter is that science is in everyday life, you cannot escape it. So, becoming educated on the relevant topics is essential.
Science communication provides a non-confrontational, universal way of communicating information that is important for life on earth (and other planets). The world is changing and so shall we, but we need the right information shared in the appropriate way to adapt to the changes we face as humanity. Science communicators should be a crucial member on political advisor teams, product development, Public relations teams etc. This world is developing, it is time we develop with it.
Here are some great resources if you are interested in learning more about Science Communication:
By Molly Murray.
Molly is a BSc. Science Communication student at MSVU and the WISEatlantic Communications Assistant
Now, more than ever, the world needs all scientists and researchers of diverse and varied backgrounds to aid in the fight against COVID-19. In such a vital time where science is pushing boundaries and rapidly evolving to meet circumstances, you would think that equal numbers of women and men would be at the forefront of the movement. While there have been significant improvements in respect to gender equality in the STEM workforce over the past few months and years, it still yields disappointing figures when compared to desired numbers.
Less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women. That’s a staggering statistic considering women make up slightly more than half of the world’s population. Furthermore, only 35% of those studying in STEM programs are women. There are a variety of explanations as to why this is: inherent assumptions that girls won’t do well in science, less mentors and role models, hostility from others regarding their ‘unnatural’ choice of career path, just to name a few. Even if they persevere through their schooling, the workplace isn’t always kind. Some barriers include unequal pay, glass ceilings (an inability to progress or be promoted beyond a certain point), and a lack of reliable policies to ensure job security in times of pregnancy leave or other life events. Most, if not all, of these barriers are nonexistent to white men.
So, what can we do about it? While we can’t just will gender equality into existence (though I so wish we could), an effective way to get started is raising awareness and celebrating women in STEM. The International Day of Women and Girls in Science was introduced by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 to ensure equal participation of women across STEM fields and to empower them to pursue their scientific ambitions. The day has been designated as February 11th and embraces a theme each year. Last year’s theme was ‘Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth’ and aimed to draw attention to the reality that both women in science and gender equality are necessary if the world intends to meet any internationally agreed developmental goals (an example would be the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development). The theme for 2021 has yet to be announced.
There are a variety of ways you can celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science safely this year. Spend some time researching a woman’s scientific achievements on Google (easily done from the comfort of your couch) or sit down with some of the young girls in your life and chat with them about their ambitions. Encourage them to pursue STEM and make them aware that it’s possible for them to succeed in the field. You can also engage with different at-home STEM activities (a nice collection can be viewed at http://www.wiseatlantic.ca/resources/ ). However you chose to celebrate, be sure to have fun with it, and know that you’re empowering the women in your life and helping create an increasingly gender equal world.
By Madyn Bourque
Sources: https://en.unesco.org/commemorations/womenandgirlinscienceday https://sdg.iisd.org/events/international-day-of-women-and-girls-in-science/ https://www.builtbyme.com/lack-of-women-in-stem-reasons/#:~:text=Fewer%20girls%20keep%20their%20interest,science%2C%20technology%20and%20engineering%20fields. https://nationaltoday.com/international-day-of-women-and-girls-in-science/ https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/international-day-of-women-and-girls-in-science
Around the world right now there are so many things happening, with COVID-19 and the US presidential election. Not many people are focusing on the up-and-comers of scientific discoveries. 2020 has been a crazy year, not a great one but for the Canadian Space Agency 2020 has come with the findings of a possible second solar system, and a new leader.
Around the world right now there are so many things happening, with COVID-19 and the US presidential election. Not many people are focusing on the up-and-comers of scientific discoveries. 2020 has been a crazy year, not a great one but for the Canadian Space Agency 2020 has come with the findings of a possible second solar system, and a new leader.
There are so many amazing women doing incredible things in today’s world. Including Lisa Campbell, she is the first female President of the Canadian Space Agency. She stepped into this huge role with hard work and dedication. Using her leadership skills, she guided the agency to new heights. Campbell previously served as the Associate Deputy Minister with Veterans Affairs Canada. She also acquired a Bachelor’s of Arts in Political Science from McGill University and a Legum Baccalaureus of Law from Dalhousie Law School, creating a strong educational background that’s great asset in this position. She has worked in both the private and public sectors in employment, constitutional and criminal law.
Her long-standing history with the Government of Canada includes Assistant Deputy Minister, Defense and Marine Procurement, Public Services and Procurement, where she provided military and marine procurement solutions, as well as Senior Deputy Commissioner for Canada’s competition authority, responsible for reviewing business conduct across the board. All of this experience makes her the perfect person to lead the Canadian Space Agency through the multitude of funding opportunities coming their way over the next several years.
Many of us have heard of the mythical hybrid between human and horse, the centaur, but I’m sure you wouldn’t believe what I’m about to tell you!
The ATLAS telescope located in Hawaii captured images of what appears to be a second solar system. They’re calling this centaur (a hybrid between a comet and an asteroid) orbiting object the P/2019 LD2. Because of its composition and its overall potential to move rapidly across the solar system, some astronomers believe that centaurs are a so-called missing link between small icy masses in the Kuiper Belt which is beyond Neptune and comets that regularly visit the inner solar system (SN: 11/19/94).
Sciencenews.org calls these icy masses, short-period comets. They are expected to orbit around the sun once per decade. Sometimes will even come close enough to be seen from earth. Other longer period comets including Halley’s Comet, which only visits our solar system once in a century. These comets most likely originated from further beyond the sun.
Oftentimes, we (as amateurs) think of asteroids and comets as pretty much the same thing. Astronomers are now teaching us the differences, and also about the increasing number of “crossovers” or hybrids, just like the mythical centaur. The hybrids first appear to act as a standard asteroid and then later begin to morph and develop new activity (such as tails) specific to comets. Astronomers and scientists have yet to tell us how or why this may be happening within the walls of our solar system.
What’s the difference between a comet and an asteroid? Tim Childers from Live Science tells us that comets are known as a dirty space snowball, made of mostly ice and dust. As comets tend to have a more stable orbit. Whereas asteroids are known as the rocky and airless leftovers from the formation of plants in our solar system. Asteroids mostly orbit around the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. 1
While the ATLAS telescope has discovered more than 40 comets, this particular discovery of the 2019 LD2 is quite interesting because of the way that it orbits. This begs the question; Why is the orbit of this object extraordinary? Writers at NASA answered; The early indication that it was an asteroid near Jupiter’s orbit has now been confirmed through precise measurements from many different observations. This hybrid orbits in the same area that Jupiter does, implying that it may be part of the Jupiter’s trojans; a group of asteroids that share the same orbit as Jupiter. This was initially proven to be false by Sam Deen and Tony Dunn on the Minor planet Mailing List on May 21st, 2020. But after further observation it’s been determined that 2019 LD2 is part of Jupiter’s Trojans, it just exhibits different behaviors never seen before because it spewing out dust and gas which are characteristics of a comet.
As new observations are being conducted to try to figure out what actually happened. The only thing I am certain of is that the universe is full of big surprises. Even explorations to warn us of possible dangerous asteroids leaves us with many unexpected treasures that are harmless but incredibly fascinating objects that teach us more about the history of our solar system.