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Memorialized on Mercury: A Monument to the Life and Work of Maya Angelou

February 25, 2020
Left: Angelou Crater on Mercury. Right: Portrait of Maya Angelou by Steve Dunwell

“You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

 – Maya Angelou, Still I Rise 

As we celebrate Black History Month, there is no better time to remember the life and work of the poet, memoirist, dancer, singer, actress, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou (1928-2014). This year, her legacy deserves extra attention. On September 19th, 2019, 50 years after the publication of her most famous work and first autobiography, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”,  a new and permanent monument to her contributions to literature and the arts was approved by the International Astronomical Union (a.k.a the IAU). You may be wondering what outer space has to do with the first Black woman to publish a nonfiction best seller–and that is a reasonable question. 

In order to understand the relationship, you’ve got to know what the IAU does. The IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature determines the official names for different geologic features on planetary bodies throughout the solar system. From the Moon to the Kuiper Belt objects out beyond Pluto, the IAU is in charge of approving the naming–or nomenclature–of different surface features, like mountains, plains, and craters. Each planetary body has a specific set of criteria or naming conventions which all proposed names must meet in order to be considered. The individual(s) proposing the name must also make a case for why the feature (crater, mountain chain, etc.) is worthy of being named. This typically boils down to scientific value–whether some aspect of the feature in question is being actively studied by scientists; or whether there is a future plan to study it. 

Having official and universally accepted names for geologic features makes it easier for others to follow, and often reexamine, the research other scientists have completed. For example, it is much easier to locate Montes Alpes than it would be to find “that set of mountains on the northeast edge of one of those big impact basins on the nearside of the Moon.” 

For craters on Mercury, the IAU only considers names of “artists, musicians, painters, and authors who have made outstanding or fundamental contributions to their field and have been recognized as art historically significant figures for more than 50 years.” Angelou made her mark on history with a long list of firsts: she wrote the first original screenplay by a Black woman to be produced into a feature film (Georgia, Georgia, 1972), was the first Black woman to direct a major motion picture (Down in the Delta, 1998), published the first nonfiction bestseller by a Black woman (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969), worked as the first black cable car driver in San Francisco, and countless more. She was a true master of written and spoken word, and in 1993 was the first poet to recite their work at a presidential inauguration since Robert Frost in 1961. 

Angelou’s accomplishments are truly outstanding, and she received many awards for her work including three Grammy Awards for her spoken-word albums (1993, 1995, 2002), the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2010), and the National Medal of Arts (2000). These awards are proof of her impact on the arts and her influence on literature and pop culture. 

Image of Angelou crater acquired by the MESSENGER spacecraft.
Angelou Crater as seen by the MESSENGER spacecraft (circled in red). Center latitude/longitude   80.3° N, 293.3° E (66.7° W). Northernmost latitude: 80.5° N, Southernmost latitude: 80.1° N, Easternmost longitude: 294.6° E (65.4° W), Westernmost longitude: 292.2° E (67.8° W). Feature Diameter: 17.4 km. 

This past summer, while working at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, it came to my attention that one of the interns, Matthew Tagle, was working on a proposal with his mentor, Dr. Nancy Chabot, to name six craters near the north pole of Mercury. These craters are of scientific interest because they contain regions which are permanently in shadow, and these regions have the proper conditions to support stable water ice. 

When I looked into the criteria for crater nomenclature, I immediately thought of Maya Angelou–that she deserved to be memorialized alongside so many of history’s other great artists. After suggesting the name to another intern who was more involved with the proposal, and realizing that she was unfamiliar with Angelou, I waited until I had a chance to pitch the idea to Dr. Chabot. She and her intern had already chosen names for the six craters they were initially interested in, but she was enthusiastic about the idea, and so found a seventh crater of interest to include in the proposal. On August 6th, 2019, the proposal was submitted to the IAU, and on September 19th, all seven names, including Angelou Crater, were approved. 

North Polar View of Mercury. Map provided by the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature. Angelou Crater circled in red.  

Seeing a Black artist honored alongside such great artists as Tolkien and Rachmaninoff is important in so many ways. To realize their potential, people need to feel welcomed. Creating an inclusive community begins by recognizing the achievements of all people. As a Black woman with a physics degree pursuing a PhD in Planetary Science, it is especially important to me to do everything I can to create a more diverse and inclusive community in the geosciences for those that follow. I take Maya Angelou’s words to heart; “if you don’t like something, change it. And if you can’t change it, change your attitude.” 

According to the American Geosciences Institute, in the US, only about 3% of all geoscience graduate students are Black or African-American. Studies show that there has been little to no improvement in these numbers in over forty years. I aim to do my part to change the attitudes of current academics while educating the community on inclusivity, and to encourage future scholars to investigate possible careers in geoscience. 

Having the opportunity to permanently honor the contributions of Maya Angelou on the surface of another planet has perhaps been the most meaningful experience of my nascent scientific career. 

Angelou crater will forever memorialize the life, work, and powerful words of Maya Angelou. 

“Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.” 

– Maya Angelou, Still I Rise 

Jordan Bretzfelder is currently working on her PhD in the Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences at UCLA.  Follow her journey through graduate school and pilot training on instagram at  @onesmallstepforjordan and on twitter at  @JordanAdAstra

LPSC 2020 – Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion within Planetary Science Networking Event

February 19, 2020

Dear all,

Please see below information about an upcoming event at this year’s LPSC. Hope you can join!

Wednesday, 5:30 to 7:30 PM, Waterway 1-3
Welcome! This event is open to all interested persons. This year, in preparation for the Decadal Survey, we will discuss equity, diversity, and inclusion within planetary science and ways that the field can become more accessible and even to a diverse group of people. Join us for what’s sure to be an exciting panel discussion followed by break-outs to actively participate in drafting Decadal Survey white papers. This event is co-sponsored by the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Working Group of the AGs (EDIWoG), the Susan Niebur Women in Planetary Science Group (WiPS), the Professional Culture & Climate Subcommittee (PCCS) of the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS).

For questions about this event, contact one of this year’s organizers:

  • Justin Filiberto, He / Him
  • Mallory Kinczyk, She / Her
  • Moses Milazzo, He / Him
  • Jennifer Piatek, She / Her
  • Julie Rathburn, She / Her
  • Christina Richey, They / Them
  • Nicolle Zellner, She / Her

It is Award Nomination Season! And it needs you to succeed

February 13, 2020

Hello all! I was inspired by these articles that Nicolle Zellner shared on the AASWomen newsletter, about a team of people who made it their mission to help promote equal representation in AGU award nominations.

EOS Article in which they describe their process and gives tips and best practices for success: Equal Representation in Scientific Honors Starts with Nominations

This follow up includes a nice graph of the increase of female participants in 2019

And it is time again to nominate deserving colleagues for awards. Here are some of the major professional societies and their award deadlines (scroll over the text for links):

DPS Award Nominations are open now and close April 1 !!!

AGU Award Nominations are open now and close March 15 !!!

General GSA Award Nominations are mostly closed (on Feb 1), except for recognition of an international colleague, but the Planetary Division Awards deadlines are spread throughout the year !

What other awards are out there? Comment below and I will add them to this list.

Happy Nominating!



AGU Bridge Program

January 14, 2020

The American Geophysical Union began a Bridge Program in 2019. It was initiated to “develop, adopt, and share inclusive practices for recruiting, admitting and retaining women and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduate programs.”

Fourteen Bridge Partner Institutions were selected for the program because they demonstrated that they will “provide a supportive, inclusive and nurturing environment for students”. These include Georgia State University, Department of Geosciences; Lehigh University, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences; University of Chicago, Department of the Geophysical Sciences; and University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.


Read more and find the full list of Bridge Partner Institutions at

Biennial European Astrobiology Conference (BEACON)

December 16, 2019

Posted at the request of Wolf Geppert

Biennial European Astrobiology Conference (BEACON)
The Biennial European Astrobiology Conference (BEACON) will take place at the La Palma & Teneguia Princess Hotel on La Palma Island (Canary Islands, Spain) from 20-24 April 2020. During this meeting also the 2nd General Assembly of the EAI will take place. Scientific sessions are planned covering the following themes:

  • Formation and Evolution of Planetary Systems and Detection of Habitable Worlds
  • The Pathway to Complexity: From Simple Molecules to First Life
  • Planetary Environments and Habitability
  • Evolution and Traces of Early Life and Life under Extreme Condition
  • Biosignatures and the Detection of Life beyond Earth
  • Historical, Philosophical, Societal and Ethical Issues in Astrobiology
  • Tracing Life and Identifying Habitable Environments
  • Impacts and their Role in the Evolution of Planets, Moons and Life
  • Protoplanetary disks and their physical and chemical processes

There will be, amongst others,  the following keynote speakers at the event:

Daniela Billi, University of Rome Tor Vergata, Italy
Bertram Bitsch, MPIA Heidelberg, Germany
Joanna Drazkowska, LMU Munich, Germany
Michael Gillon, University of Liège, Belgium
Keyron Hickman-Lewis, CNRS, France
Lisa Kaltenegger, Cornell University, USA 
Nancy Kiang, NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, USA
Silvano Onofri, University of Tuscia, Italy
Ana-Catalina Plesa, German Aerospace Center, Germany
Sarah Rugheimer, Oxford University, UK 
Eörs Szathmary, Eötvös Lorand University, Hungary

La Palma offers a multitude of  relevant research infrastructures (telescopes) and locations (active volcanoes, recent lava fields, Mars-analogue landscapes,  etc. During the conference excursion (Friday 24th April) many of these will be visited. An optional after conference walk (Saturday 25 April) along the Volcano route (Ruta de los Volcanes) spanning several active volcanoes above 1600m altitude will also be offered.


New Video Interview Series from the Europlanet Early Career and Diversity Committees

November 14, 2019

Note from Rutu Parekh about New Planetary Science Interview Series:


As a part of Europlanet Early Career (EPEC) Network Diversity working group ( we try to build diverse working environment for the young and early career researcher community. We interviewed experienced scientists and discussed about their life struggles, motivations and success. This series is specially aimed for the future generation of researchers who face difficult time in their early career.

Recently we launched our first episode of this series, where we interviewed Dr. Rosaly Lopes, planetary volcanologist at JPL-NASA. Her piece of advise is ‘Don’t give up. You keep going. And everyone is going to have papers criticized, proposals rejected and also don’t take it personally’. Do watch her journey here !!!

We will release one interview every month here, so stay tuned to get more updates. Feel free to spread it around with your friends, colleagues and on your social media accounts. We would love to have as much feedback as possible.

Summary from the Planetary Allyship Meeting 2019

October 7, 2019

The following post was compiled by the Planetary Allyship Group including the organizers and attendees of the meeting:

The Planetary Allyship Meeting is an informal group that has met at the Division of Planetary Science’s annual conference since 2015 to discuss issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion among those who have privilege to support folks who have less. Write-ups of previous meetings are available here: 2016, 2017, and 2018. Interested parties can sign up to an e-mail list here –

The fourth annual DPS Planetary Allyship Meeting took place on Tuesday, September 17, 2019, during the joint EPSC-DPS Meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. Amidst the coffee and croissants, we discussed several issues that span the Atlantic, affecting both our American and European colleagues, and issues that seem unique to each side of the divide.

Read more…