Coronavirus lockdown reaches space as ESA partially shuts down spacecraft
The coronavirus situation in Europe has forced ESA to temporarily suspend a number of its deep-space missions. To reduce the risk to space agency personnel from the virus, the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany is reducing on-site crews and shutting down instruments on eight spacecraft responsible for collecting data for four science missions.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a global emergency, and now it is even affecting unmanned missions hundreds of millions of miles away from Earth. The spacecraft themselves obviously aren't affected by the terrestrial disease, but the mission control technicians who oversee their operations are at risk of infection.
According to ESA, most of the agency's workers are telecommuting, but key personnel are still needed to handle real-time oversight of spacecraft operations. Agency restrictions have been recently tightened as various European nations intensify their efforts to control the spread of the virus, which has already infected one person at ESOC, necessitating the partial shutdown of some spacecraft.
The four missions are long-duration ones with stable orbits that can be set into a safe configuration, a kind of hibernation, without being adversely affected. The missions include Cluster, which is a four-spacecraft mission to study the Earth's magnetic field; the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter; Mars Express: and the Solar Orbiter, which is en route to a close encounter with the Sun.
Another reason for standing down the eight craft is to free up remaining personnel to monitor the Mercury exploration probe BepiColombo, which is scheduled to make a flyby of Earth on April 10 to slingshot it toward the solar system's innermost planet. ESA says that during these maneuvers, mission control crews will adhere to social distance and hygiene procedures. The Solar Orbiter will make a similar fly by of Venus in December when, hopefully, the pandemic will be under better control.
"Over the coming days, our interplanetary missions will be gradually commanded into a safe configuration, so that thereafter they will need little or no intervention from ground," says Paolo Ferri, who is responsible for mission operations at ESA. "These probes are designed to safely sustain long periods with limited or no interaction with ground, required for instance for the periods they spend behind the Sun as seen from Earth, when no radio contact is possible for weeks. We are confident that with very limited and infrequent interactions with ground control the missions can safely remain in that operation mode for months, should the duration of the coronavirus mitigation measures require it."