May 12, 2020 - Science

Coronavirus pandemic delays major astronomy projects

Illustration of an astronaut with a face mask.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic is pushing back major astronomy projects and threatening to unravel some of the gains made toward increasing diversity among researchers in the field.

Why it matters: Depending on how long the crisis lasts, it could affect our understanding of the cosmos for years to come by delaying scientific efforts that will help find new asteroids and gather data about distant stars and galaxies.

What's happening: NASA announced in March that it would put the building of the James Webb Space Telescope — the planned successor to the Hubble Space Telescope — on hold due to the coronavirus, likely adding an additional delay to the already years-delayed mission.

  • Construction of the Extremely Large Telescope and the Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile have also been put on hold, delaying the much-anticipated projects.
  • The Event Horizon Telescope — which uses a network of radio telescopes around the world to take photos of black holes — was forced to cancel its observing season this year.
  • Both LIGO observatories in the U.S. are on pause to protect staff, putting off the hunt for new signals from gravitational waves rippling the fabric of space and time.

Yes, but: Astronomy, unlike some other fields of science, is well-suited to remote work in general.

  • Some telescopes are remotely operated as a rule, with researchers directing observations from various parts of the world and others having gone to more remote observing due to the pandemic.
  • Still, most observatories need people on-site to maintain them, and due to social distancing and new safety requirements, the coronavirus is complicating these efforts.

What to watch: Astronomy and astrophysics have also made strides toward diversifying its researchers in recent years, but the coronavirus pandemic could threaten that progress.

  • Contractors, researchers, university and observatory staff, and adjunct professors from historically underrepresented groups in astronomy could be most vulnerable to the economic effects of the pandemic.
"The more risky we seem as a career choice, our diversity numbers will drop. It'll just be the people who feel economically safe and culturally safe making that choice, and we'll lose our inclusiveness again. I think that's bad for the science because we need all points of view."
— Megan Donahue, the president of the American Astronomical Society, to Axios

Astronomers are also worried about the funding landscape for the field after the worst of the crisis passes.

  • Space science is particularly dependent on government spending for large projects and other initiatives, but if that kind of funding dries up after the pandemic, it could create a ripple effect across the entire field for years to come.
  • If government funding runs dry, hiring, current jobs and future missions could all see effects, astronomer Jonathan McDowell told Axios
  • "That's going to have a long-term ripple effect on employment in the field," McDowell added.

The bottom line: The field of astronomy is feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, but the true toll of the crisis may not appear until years down the road.

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