The lunar surface is littered with craters, the relics of violent impacts over cosmic time. Some of the largest are visible to the naked eye, and a backyard telescope reveals hundreds more. But spin astronomical observatories or even a space probe on our closest heavenly neighbor, and suddenly millions appear.
Bettina Forget, artist and researcher at Concordia University in Montreal, has been drawing lunar craters for years. Ms. Forget is an amateur astronomer and the practice combines her interests in art and science. “I come from a family of artists,” she said. “I had to fight for a chemistry set.”
According to convention, moon craters are named after scientists, engineers and researchers. Some of the drawings that Ms. Forget draws have household names: Newton, Copernicus, Einstein. But many don’t. Drawing craters with unknown names made Ms. Forget wonder: Who were these people? And how many were women?
“As soon as this question settles in your head, you need to know,” she said.
Ms. Forget looked at records from the International Astronomical Union, the organization that officially names lunar craters and other features on worlds around the solar system. She began to underline craters named after women.
“There wasn’t much to underline,” said Ms. Forget.
Of the 1,578 lunar craters named at the time, only 32 women were honored (a 33rd was named in February).
“I didn’t expect 50 percent. I’m not that optimistic, ”she said. “But 2 percent? I was really shocked. “
That so few lunar craters are named after women makes a strong statement, she said. “It creates an atmosphere where you don’t think women contribute.”
In 2016 Ms. Forget started a project called “Women With Impact,” in which each crater named after a woman was drawn. Ms. Forget draws a large notebook with graphite for details and black acrylic paint. She captures the resemblance of craters on the near side of the moon, like Cannon and Mitchell, namesake of 19th and 20th century astronomers, by observing them with her 8-inch telescope. For craters like Resnik and Chawla, both named after astronauts and located on the other side of the moon invisible from Earth, she bases her drawings on images captured by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Ms. Forget has completed 32 drawings so far. The pieces, all individually framed, have been exhibited in an art gallery at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium in Montreal. “Women With Impact” aims to highlight the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Ms. Forget said. “A crater is an absence of matter, a void,” she said. “This is a parallel to the emptiness of women in the STEM.”
Working with craters in two dimensions prompted Ms. Forget to add a third. “I liked this idea of holding a moon crater in my hand,” she said. In 2019, she started 3D printing models for each crater in Women With Impact. Ms. Forget is now creating an inverted version of each one, essentially a stamp that maintains the shape of the crater. “I could do an outie,” she said.
Ms. Forget is experimenting with different ways to attach these stamps to the soles of shoes. She plans to mail the stamps to female scientists around the world and ask them to record their experiences of creating their own craters in a project called “One Small Step”. As director of the SETI Institute’s Artists in Residence program, Ms. Forget initially wants to reach women whose work focuses on astrobiology and exoplanets.
It is important to celebrate the contributions of living women scientists, Ms. Forget said. “The Women With Impact series honors historical women, but One Small Step can honor and promote women who are now in STEM fields,” she said.
As more and more moon craters are named after women, Ms. Forget plans to create additional drawings, 3D models, and postage stamps. She already has work to do – a crater, Easley, was named after computer scientist Annie Easley in February.
Catherine Neish, a planetary scientist at the University of Western Ontario, proposed the name Easley to the International Astronomical Union in January. (Her husband told her to consider not only the name of a woman, but also the name of a woman of color.) Dr. Neish had successfully proposed Pierazzo and Tharp craters for Elisabetta Pierazzo and Marie Tharp in 2015, and she was aware of this small part of the lunar craters in honor of women. “I was gung ho to slowly split off on that number,” she said.
The lack of lunar craters honoring women is both surprising and unsurprising, said Kelsi N. Singer, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. Women were generally not allowed to be scientists, engineers, and explorers until the 20th century, she said. Since lunar craters are not usually named after living people, “there is definitely a historical lag,” said Dr. Singer.
Women are over-represented when it comes to the names of features on Venus and some of the smaller moons of Uranus. But these places are exceptions in the solar system. The International Astronomical Union has recognized this problem and is prioritizing female names when naming lunar craters.
“We have decided that if we have the choice and the chance to name a crater after a woman, we will do it,” said Rita Schulz, planetary scientist at the European Center for Space Research and Technology in the Netherlands and chair of the union’s working group for the planetary system nomenclature.
Dr. Neish already has another name in mind for a moon crater. “Very few people can name craters because they don’t have a valid scientific reason for it,” she said. “I want to use my privilege to recognize some of these women who have come before me.”