Mar 24, 2020 - Science

European Space Agency scales back missions as pandemic intensifies

Photo of Earth from space

Photo: NASA

The European Space Agency is stopping science operations on four deep space missions as the coronavirus pandemic continues to intensify.

Why it matters: The shutdown comes as nations have placed tight restrictions on movement while cases of COVID-19 rise. ESA also announced that someone working at the European Space Operations Centre in Germany has tested positive for the virus.

Details: On Tuesday, ESA announced it is planning to temporarily suspend operations of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Mars Express, which both circle the Red Planet.

  • The agency's four-spacecraft Cluster mission orbiting Earth and its Solar Orbiter that launched in February to study the Sun from close range will also go dark.
  • According to ESA, interplanetary missions like these require a large number of people on-site at any given time, so ending science operations temporarily will help limit the number of people at mission control.
  • “These have stable orbits and long mission durations, so turning off their science instruments and placing them into a largely unattended safe configuration for a certain period will have a negligible impact on their overall mission performance," Rolf Densing, ESA’s director of operations, said in the statement.

The big picture: The space industry at large is seeing more effects from the coronavirus crisis.

  • NASA's James Webb Space Telescope — a nearly $10 billion astrophysics mission expected to launch next year — could face delays due to the pandemic after the agency suspended testing of the telescope.
  • Bigelow Aerospace — a company with plans to one day build private space stations — has reportedly laid off its entire workforce in part because of the pandemic.
  • Maxar has also warned that it may not be able to deliver satellites to customers on time due to supply chain issues brought about by the pandemic, according to SpaceNews.

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