Mar 24, 2020 - Science

European Space Agency scales back missions as pandemic intensifies

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.

Go deeper: Website allows space fans to experience Apollo 13 in real time

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Europe, Russia delay Mars mission to 2022

Artist's illustration of the rover on Mars. Photo: ESA/ATG medialab

The European Space Agency and Roscosmos announced on Thursday that their joint ExoMars mission expected to launch this year is now delayed to 2022.

The big picture: The decision to postpone the mission was made due to technical issues around the spacecraft's development and possible travel restrictions resulting from the unfolding novel coronavirus pandemic.

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NASA selects experiments to fly aboard its Gateway space station

Artist's illustration of the Gateway. Photo: NASA

Two experiments designed to monitor the space environment will eventually orbit the Moon on NASA's small Gateway space station.

Why it matters: The experiments will keep an eye on the radiation environment in lunar orbit in order to help scientists learn how to keep astronauts safe as they explore deep space.

Go deeperArrowMar 17, 2020 - Science