Global Focus - Seychelles, blazing a trail in marine conservation
As the world grapples with the climate emergency, Seychelles is leading the way in marine conservation – ten years ahead of United Nations deadlines. A marine expedition into its deep waters has analysed a huge swathe of unchartered Indian Ocean territory, providing invaluable research.
“The Seychelles are a beacon for ocean conservation, ocean science and ocean management. They’ve really taken the lead where others are catching up,” says Oliver Steeds, founder and mission director of Nekton, the research foundation that carried out deep ocean explorations in the Seychelles in March/April.
The Seychelles archipelago is the first instalment of Nekton’s work towards a State of the Indian Ocean summit in October 2022. Nekton’s First Descent expeditions into the Indian Ocean will next move to the Maldives this year.
The third island where the last expedition is to take place is not known yet but Oliver Steeds hopes it will be one linked to France, because its “influence in the Indian Ocean is really important, namely in such places like Reunion and Mayotte”.
“We very much hope that France is going to be a key actor in helping to galvanise sustainable blue economy and the conservation priorities in the Indian Ocean,” he adds.
The Indian Ocean, the third largest ocean in the world, is also known to scientists as the forlorn ocean, because there is so little known about it.
Seychelles President Danny Faure, in his address to the world in a submersible 124 metres below sea, said “we have better maps of Planet Mars than we do of the Indian Ocean floor”.
“To support our conservation efforts, it is vital that we have more data, more information,” Faure added.
To conduct its field research, Nekton Mission and the 16 scientists on board the Ocean Zephyr spent 48 days exploring the waters of the Seychelles in 75 manned submersibles descents, mapping 30,000 square metres of seabed in 3D, collecting 20 terabytes of marine data and gathering over 1,200 samples.
“This expedition is historic for Seychelles. We’ve never had similar expeditions in the past,” says Alain de Comarmond, the principal secretary at the Seychelles ministry of environment, energy and climate change.
“In the past, we had gone to do research as deep as 30 meters. That’s it. This expedition gave us a good coverage of bio-diversity across our 115 islands.”
Nekton’s mandate is to work for and on behalf of the host nations. The partnership involves ongoing capacity building and training of Seychellois scientists.
Steeds said all the data and biological samples collected by Nekton will be owned and vested by the government of the Seychelles.
“We want to demonstrate a case study, an economic, political, environmental one for marine spatial planning and identifying where those areas of protection need to be.
We want to help Seychelles develop a sustainable Blue Economy. If Seychelles can’t do it, it’s going to be very hard for others to follow,” Steeds declares.
Protection of Seychelles’ ocean
Seychelles has committed 30 percent of its 1.35 million sq km of waters to marine protection by 2020, ten years ahead of the United Nations 2030 target for Sustainable Development Goal no. 14, known as the Life Below Water goal. Most of the work has already been accomplished, with only some four percent left for Seychelles to reach its deadline.
The island nation developed a marine spatial plan since 2014 that covers its entire marine territory and holds a large mandate from marine protection to sustainable economic growth. A 2016 financing scheme which consisted in swapping part of its debt for climate change adaptation programmes was crucial for the island’s marine conservation strategies.
The team working on this Marine Spatial Plan for the Seychelles – which has identified marine areas falling under varying degrees of protection – worked closely with the Nekton team in selecting priority sites for the explorations. The descents took place in the waters around the islands of Aldabra, Astove, Alphonse, Des Roches, Poivre and D’Arros.
“The Nekton Mission will help in confirming whether the information we have been using is correct,” explains Helena Sims, the Seychelles Marine Spatial Plan project manager for The Nature Conservancy.
“If there is any new information that we do not currently have, it can input either in identifying new areas or in revising the marine spatial plan in the next revision stage as we currently need more data.”
Marine Spatial Plan
Seychelles has identified three zones under its marine spatial plan. Two of them are designated for marine protection and covers 30 percent of its oceans.
The Marine Protected Area with high biodiversity protection covers 177,000 sq km around the Aldabra Atoll, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This zone is known as the Aldabra Group Marine National Park and is home to rare, endangered or endemic species, like the dugong or giant tortoises.
The second Marine Protected Area is under medium marine protection and is open to sustainable economic activities as it is closer to where the Seychellois live. It covers a 173,000 sq km area between Amirantes Isles and Fortune Bank.
“The Seychelles is a small island developing state or a large oceanic state. Although our areas are relatively pristine, we would like to keep it that way because at the end of the day, everything in Seychelles is connected to the ocean,” Sims explains.
Zone 3 represents the remaining 70 percent, identified for various uses and economic activities. Fisheries and marine tourism are the pillars of Seychelles’ economy. While it is important that those activities continue along with sand mining and oil exploration in order to support the livelihoods of the Seychellois, it is also important that they are carried out in a sustainable way.
“It’s not purely about conservation, it’s also balancing the social, the economic and the ecological objectives,” Sims adds.
The extensive and detailed explorations carried out by Nekton help to inform Seychelles in devising its marine conservation plans. The plans are also informed by essential and ongoing consultation with stakeholders.
The wealth of data and samples collected by the Nekton mission is currently being analysed by an international team of 15 scientists. The process should be completed in two years but research on what has been collected may continue for decades.
The scientists started work in May and, even though it is still early stages, a few findings emerged. One of them is evidence of a so-called rariphotic or twilight zone located between 130 and 300 metres deep. It is one of the largest new ecosystems, which is found in the Atlantic and Caribbean, but never previously in the Indian Ocean.
Dr Lucy Woodall, the principal scientist at Nekton, said that they also discovered far more fish around the Aldabra Atoll than they did at any other sites.
“This is very important as it shows that the protection that was afforded to Aldabra for 40 years is working,” she adds.
Shallow coral reefs around the globe are dying through bleaching because the sea is getting warmer. However, in Seychelles, the scientists did not find dying coral in the locations they explored.
“There is no evidence of this bleaching, even currently or in the past. This is very important for us to understand why there are really healthy corals and also to monitor and to protect them over time,” Woodall says.
The Nekton First Descent Expedition in the Seychelles cost 1.5 million US dollars in marine operations, supported by cutting-edge tools and 21 different research technology, including manned submersibles, remotely operated vehicles, live-streaming to the world.
15 different camera systems also enabled scientists to create the first 3D maps of newly discovered deep sea ecosystems.
“The most iconic are the submersibles which are really powerful scientific tools that we have to use in the area of complex topography,” Steeds explains.
“We operate on the sides of cliffs, atolls and islands, we have strong currents coming in. You don’t want to put a robot on a tether down there, you’re asking for trouble.”
Laws for high seas
The government of Seychelles intends to be a strong advocate for marine protection around the world. President Faure said he is “100 percent committed” to support the ongoing work by the United Nations in developing a legally binding framework to protect the oceans in areas beyond national borders.
The high seas outside any nation’s exclusive economic zone belong to nobody and are poorly protected by a series of treaties.
“Who owns the biodiversity of the high seas?” asks Steeds. “People are going in there, fishing, trawling, doing things illegally… Under the UN law of the sea, the high seas belong to you and I, the people of the planet.”
Faure believes that stronger laws are “the only way forward”.
“A healthy ocean is important for more than just economic growth, it is crucial for the survival of humanity. We are running out of excuses to not take action and running out of time,” Faure declared, 124 metres below the surface of the Indian Ocean.
Follow Oliver Steeds on Twitter @OliverSteeds
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Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt
Global Focus - EXCLUSIVE RFI REPORT: Pain of Yazidi genocide remembered in France
Yazidis gathered in the north of Paris to commemorate the genocide which began on 3 August 2014. The survivors and their children are refugees in France. They all have a vivid memory of that day when they left a part of themselves in the Sinjar mountains.
The laughter and shouts of children playing on the narrow stretch of green grass liven up the Nelson Mandela Sports Centre in Sarcelles. They are playing next to the only monument in France commemorating the beginning of the Yazidi genocide on 3 August 2014. The town of Sarcelles, north of Paris, inaugurated the memorial on 22 May 2019.
Not far away, there are two other monuments commemorating the Armenian and Assyrian genocides. The Yazidi children are blissfully unaware of the sombre occasion; the adults have gathered to remember the beginning of the Yazidi genocide which took place in Sinjar region in north eastern Iraq.
Thousands were killed by the Islamic State armed group who regarded the Yazidis as heretics. The women were raped and enslaved. The boys were enrolled as child soldiers. Those who refused to convert to Islam were executed.
The Yazidis, or Ezidis, have their own language and culture. Their centuries-old religion is among the oldest monotheistic pre-Abrahamic faith.
Farhad Shamo-Roto organised the event in Sarcelles. He is the president of Voice of Ezidis, an association he recently created to raise awareness about his people, compile information about the genocide and provide help to the Yazidis living in refugee camps in Iraq.
25-year-old Shamo-Roto came to France on 4 November 2017 and was later granted refugee status. He believes remembrance is important, however painful it may be.
“On this day, the Yazidi families, each with a horrific story, want to be together and it’s important that our children and the next generation understand what happened to us,” he explains.
“We also want to show the Ezidi people living in tragic conditions in Iraq that we are remembering you and our heart is bleeding at every moment.”
Escaping to Sinjar mountains
Shamo-Roto was a 20-year-old biology student in 2014. He was in his home-town of Guhbal in Sinjar region when ISIS started closing in, blocking all the routes to the small town.
“It was one of the hardest few hours in my life. With my family and relatives, we fled Guhbal on 3 August 2014, after midnight. We walked 20 kilometres to reach the mountains,” he remembers.
“We knew the terrorists were coming to kill us. We knew they intended to kidnap our daughters. I had one cousin and two sisters. Our lives were not important. We were just trying to save them because we knew that the ISIS fighters were going to turn the girls into sexual slaves,” he added.
A 24-year-old Yazidi girl, who spoke to RFI under conditions of anonymity, said 3 August brings back very painful memories.
“This day is like hell for me. It hurts so much,” she says with eyes red from crying. “The past is past but I did not forget and I will not forget.”
“Normally, I smile and look happy because I have to be strong for my family and the people around me,” she adds.
From Kocho village to Paris
Samson Husein is a 43-year-old mother from the village of Kocho in Sinjar region. Her husband and three sons were taken by ISIS. She doesn’t know if they are still alive.
She came to France in December 2018 as part of a resettlement programme set up by French President Emmanuel Macron with the support of 2018 Nobel Peace Laureate Nadia Murad, a female survivor of ISIS. This programme aims to provide protection to 100 vulnerable Yazidi women and their children, victims of ISIS.
Samson Husein is now living in France as a refugee with one son and two daughters. She does not think she could ever get rid of her immense sadness.
“This month is the most difficult time in my life. I lost everything. I lost my mother, my husband, five of my brothers. I lost 74 members of my family. They were taken from Kocho,” she says.
“The only thing I want to do, is go back to Iraq, to carry out the rituals on the bones of my relatives. That’s all I have left of them. And I have not even been able to do that.
“The United Nations will now open the mass graves in Iraq, I hope to go. Maybe I could identify some of them.”
Slowly realising it is a genocide
Diler Alhamad was 22 years old when he fled the small town of Telqassab at 7:15 AM on 3 August 2014 in the car with his family.
“When the sun rose, the ISIS snippers started shooting at us. The Kurdish troops had already withdrawn from the area.
"Some of us fled to the mountains with ISIS fighters chasing us. We left our cars and were on foot to climb the mountain. But the elderly, the sick and the handicapped couldn’t follow us, so they stayed [behind] at the foot of the mountain.
"When ISIS arrived, some agreed to convert to Islam. ISIS regrouped those who refused, poured gasoline [on them] and burned them,” Alhamad recollects.
Alhamad said that the “most horrible moment” for him was when, after he came down from hiding in the mountains, it dawned on him that the killings of Yazidis were carefully planned.
He says that he often wonders why he is still alive when his friends died in the massacre.
“Did the Gods want to torture me all my life, I asked myself. After some time I said no. Maybe I survived and I am alive to become the voice and witness of what happened. For me now, I have to speak. It is like a duty,” he declares.
Alhamad is convinced that most of the Yazidi who survived the genocide wished they were in the mass graves.
He came to France on 10 August 2016 with his parents and a sister. They now live in the town of Soissons as refugees. Another sister, who is now a refugee in Germany, was formerly taken by ISIS.
“When your sister is in captivity and she is just two kilometers away from you. And you know how ISIS will treat her, rape her, use her like a slave. And you can’t do anything. So, why are you living? In there, I lost my dignity, I lost my respect,” he declares.
Alhamad added that neither his father nor himself thought that the international community would have abandoned them.
“Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, we never thought they will leave us,” he says.
Farhad Shamo-Roto echoes his sentiment: “Unfortunately, the international community is still silent and did not start any step on the ground to help the Ezidi community and build a safe environment for them.”
Follow Voice of Ezidis on Twitter @VEzidis
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Global Focus - Building tolerance towards elephants through empowering local communities
Elephants are at the centre of debates in which southern African countries demand control over their wildlife resources and want the ban on ivory trade to be lifted. Strategies are being devised to encourage tolerance and overcome human-elephant conflict as both species compete for natural resources.
“In many ways, southern Africa has become a victim of their conservation success, as far elephants go,” says Dr Russell Taylor, the Transboundary Conservation Planning Advisor for the World Wildlife Fund.
Southern Africa continues to hold by far the largest number of elephants on the African continent. Of the 475,000 elephants in Africa, 293,447 are located in the region.
And nearly 75 percent (around 220,000) of southern Africa’s elephants are to be found in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA). This vast 520,000 km² expanse stretches across Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Established in 2006, its goal is to manage the Kavango Zambezi ecosystem.
But conflict between elephants and humans is on the rise. With a growing elephant population and burgeoning human numbers, the scarcity of natural resources makes it difficult to accommodate both wildlife and people.
The elephants move out of their usual range looking for food and water. In so doing, they can damage crops, property and sometimes cost lives.
“A year’s livelihood can be destroyed in one or two nights by crop-raiding elephants, for example,” says Dr Taylor.
Water resources are becoming increasingly scarce because of climate change, leading to humans and elephants competing for the same resources. As a result, water tanks and reservoirs for livestock have been destroyed by elephants.
“If we don’t provide legal alternatives to human-elephant conflict, people themselves will take matters into their own hands and they could fuel the elephant-poaching crisis which is really on the increase in southern Africa,” declares Taylor.
The population living in the immediate vicinity of the elephants is poor and the temptation to engage in poaching is great: a single elephant tusk can fetch up to ten times the average monthly salary.
Taylor fears that if measures to ensure harmonious co-existence between elephants and local communities are not put in place, some people might join the crime syndicates behind the poaching crisis.
Two world views
“Efforts by southern African elephant range states to sustainably manage their populations are subjected to constant media scrutiny which often does not take into consideration the aspirations of the KAZA range states.”
This is an extract from the final communique issued at the end of the Kasane Elephant Summit on 7 May in Botswana. It was attended by the presidents of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The southern Africans are pointing to the divide between Western perceptions of how wildlife conservation should be carried out and the reality for the people on the ground, living next to the elephant population.
“People are very resentful of what has been happening lately and things are reaching a crisis,” adds Taylor. And this is particularly true in the two KAZA countries with the largest elephant populations.
Botswana holds the largest number of elephants within the KAZA states with over 130,000 individuals. It is followed by Zimbabwe where the elephant population is over 82,000.
Local communities, crucial conservation partners
Recent biodiversity global assessment reports have concluded that conservation is doing least badly in areas where the indigenous population is left to look after indigenous wildlife. According to a World Bank report, indigenous peoples – who makes up less than 5 percent of the global population – protect 80 percent of planetary biodiversity.
Given the level of resentment within some local communities in KAZA countries, it might prove a challenge to engage them to work with the elephants and not against them.
Dr Taylor believes it is possible to reverse the trend with new approaches where local communities are empowered to use, benefit, trade or dispose of the resources of the land.
“We need to return right of access to natural resources to the local population through community-based natural resource management,” he says. “We’ve got to move beyond the days of being paternalistic and we’ve got to give them real evolution where they themselves become their own responsible authorities, entitling them to benefit from these resources.”
In this community conservation model described by Taylor, the local communities are accountable to their constituencies rather than to the central government.
“It is not in the developed world that we’ve got our best biodiversity track record,” adds Taylor. “In a big landscape like KAZA with a low population density and abundant wildlife population, this is the place to allow transformation to take place and really let people become masters of their own destiny.”
Lifting 30 years of CITES ban
At the end of the Kasane Elephant Summit, Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi, as the host, gifted stools made of elephant feet to his counterparts from Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
“We cannot continue to be spectators while others debate and take decisions about our elephants,” said President Masisi.
The Southern African countries have put a request for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to lift a 1989 ban on international trade in ivory and allow the sales of ivory stockpiles to fund elephant conservation.
“That one-size-fits-all approach from CITES of banning everything disregards the good efforts of our governments and is neither sustainable nor advisable. We must reject it,” said Emmerson Mnangagwa, the president of Zimbabwe, at the Kasane Elephant Summit in Botswana.
These countries need funds and are in possession of a commodity they are not allowed to trade.
Zimbabwean-born Taylor who has been a conservationist for 40 years is not averse to the idea of trading ivory, “provided it is done in a regulated way and done with good governance, this is really important”.
Elephant hunting is another source of revenue. It is allowed by countries such as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola and South Africa. Botswana’s President Masisi wants to lift the hunting ban on elephants imposed in 2014 by his predecessor, former President Ian Khama.
A white paper with recommendations to that effect was issued in March, by a government sub-committee, but it has not yet been debated in Parliament.
Taylor says that hunting could be carried out “within biologically sustainable limits”.
“Botswana want to lift the current moratorium on hunting as a conservation tool. It should be properly managed, properly regulated, using sustainable quotas. In most cases, you are harvesting less than 1 percent of the population. It’s what I might call wise conservation,” adds Taylor.
The conservationist stresses the need to harmonise policies and practices across the KAZA landscape while acknowledging the sovereignty of each of its five states.
“There is a great opportunity to allow greater movement of elephants across borders if we can remove some of the barriers such as veterinary fences which are a huge impediment to wildlife movement right now,” he says.
He believes in managing KAZA’s elephants as one contiguous population.
“We would like to see elephants moving from an abundant situation like Botswana to Angola or Zambia where the population has been severely depleted by poaching. They could then re-populate the more depopulated areas,” Taylor declares.
Taylor is confident that a harmonisation policy could work quite effectively.
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Global Focus - 18th century manuscripts reveal life in Louisiana under French rule
Eighteenth century documents in French and Spanish retracing life in Louisiana have been made available online, free of charge. The Colonial Documents Collection provides a unique window into the daily life of the people – free and enslaved – who then lived in Louisiana, and brings history closer, three centuries later.
“The Council declares the negro Louis guilty as charged of stealing by day and by night and of repeated burglaries and of running away… condemns him to make a public atonement before the principal door of the Parish Church with a rope around his neck, holding in his hand a fiery torch weighing two pounds, asking in a loud voice God’s pardon… after which he will be conducted on the square… to have his arms, legs, thighs and back broken alive on a scaffold… placed on a wheel, face upturned to heaven to end his pains.”
This is an excerpt of a ruling issued on the 10th of September 1764 by the Superior Council of New Orleans.
It is one among220 thousand documents from the 18th century, handwritten in Old French and in Spanish – when Louisiana was a colony of France, then Spain – which have been digitised by the Louisiana State Museum and are now accessible online.
Researchers, students, historians and genealogists across the world no longer need to travel to New Orleans to work on this period of history but can access the digitised records from their computers anywhere in the world and for free.
“The collection has blue-prints of the city as well as maps and even playing cards that were used for bartering or trade,” says Jennifer Long, Digital assets manager of the Louisiana State Museum.
The thousands of documents record minute details of life in New Orleans and Louisiana through notarial acts, civil and criminal court cases, ledgers of slave sales or disputes among families. The documents do not only provide an insight into American colonial history but also invaluable information about the French and Spanish colonial rule in the 18th century.
A French territory in the USA
The French ruled Louisiana from 1682 to 1762, a territory far larger than the current state of Louisiana. It was then ceded by France to Spain as a war debt and became a Spanish colony between 1763 and 1803.
“The first part of the collection ranges from 1714 to 1769 [the French Superior Council] in French and the second part of the collection ranging from 1769 to 1804 [the Spanish Judiciary] are written in Spanish,” explains Jennifer Long.
According to the Louisiana Historical Center's website:
The Superior Council was both the governing body and high court of France’s Louisiana colony. While virtually all of its administrative records were removed to France before or at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, records pertaining to the colony’s inhabitants remained in Louisiana.
Under Spanish rule, the Superior Council was replaced by a cabildo, or city council, with similar functions and authority; Spanish notaries continued the civil law practices of their French predecessors.
The slave trade
Among the manuscripts of the colonial collection is the 1724 edition of the Code Noir signed by Louis XV and promulgated in New Orleans. The articles of the Code Noir regulated the life, death, purchase, religion, and treatment of slaves by their masters in all French colonies. As a strategic port on the Mississippi river, New Orleans was a major marketplace for the slave trade.
“There are many accounts of slaves being brought to New Orleans from Africa, Havana, South-America. We have ledgers of names that can also be used for genealogy purposes. There are also many descriptions of very cruel acts against the enslaved,” says Jennifer Long.
There's a 1794 court case where an Antonio Lozada prosecuted a Pedro Guerrero for such bad treatment of a female slave, whom Lozada rented to Guerrero, that she had a miscarriage.
The records also provide valuable information for genealogists. According to the Louisiana Historical Center's website:
During the Spanish period many slaves of Indian ancestry petitioned government authorities for their freedom. These requests, usually granted upon proof of native ancestry, are also a part of the collection.
The handwritten documents can be difficult to read or illegible. Furthermore, they are written in Old French or 18th century Spanish. So, in some cases, there is a brief synopsis to explain the content, in others, academics translated them.
“We are constantly asking scholars when they translate documents to send them to us so that we may add them to the collection. The Old French is harder to read and understand. And we had to use several dictionaries to help translate the documents because the language is so different from what it is today,” says Sarah Elisabeth Gundlach, curator of the Louisiana Historical Center.
The process of indexing the documents revealed that the collection contains documents in other languages, so far in Latin, Catalan, German and English.
“The French were trading with other countries and colonists from other countries came to settle here so they brought their language with them,” explains Bryanne Schexnyder, Index manager of the Louisiana State Museum.
Over the past three centuries, the colonial period documents weathered “hurricanes, wars, floods,” which explains the various conditions in which they are. But some “are in remarkably great conditions” and are used in exhibitions.
The scanning of the documents was seven years in the making, completed in October 2016. Indexing, transcription and translation is still ongoing. Digitisation also means that the old manuscripts no longer have to be exposed to light or excessive handling.
The preservation of the manuscripts is a delicate process, explains Jennifer Long: “The documents are re-housed in acid-free papers, put into mylar polyester sleeves and folders, kept in a temperature controlled room.”
They are archived at the New Orleans Jazz Museum in rooms kept at a stable 68°F or 20°C so as not suffer from the New Orleans humidity and its flu+ctuating temperatures.
Follow Louisiana State Museum on Twitter @LaStateMuseum
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Global Focus - 2018 in retrospect: Science in France
2018 saw France host a landmark event in the history of science: the redefining of the kilogram. There were also Nobel-winning advances in laser technology, and we'll soon be getting a feel for Martian vibrations, as scientists land a seismometer on the red planet.
On 16 November in Versailles, the General Conference on Weights and Measures adopted a resolution to update the definitions of the International System of units based on fundamental constants of nature. This means that the kilogram, whose standard was a platinum iridium cylinder stored in a vault near Paris, will from now on be defined by Planck’s Constant.
The year also saw a French scientist winning a Nobel Prize. Professor Gerard Mourou of Ecole Polytechnique won this year’s Prize in Physics (along with Professor Arthur Ashkin and Professor Donna Strickland) for developing a special laser technique with important applications in the fields of industrial machining, ophthalmology and particle physics.
French scientists are also playing important roles in two space missions that were launched this year.
First, a magnetometer developed by researchers from the University of Orléans, which is a part of the Parker Solar Probe (launched in August) that aims to study the nature of the Sun’s atmosphere.
And Philippe Lognonné, of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, who is the principal investigator of the seismometer instrument that will measure vibrations on Mars.
The seismometer, part of the InSight mission that landed on Mars on 26 November, could reveal what lies beneath the Martian surface.