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Effects of coronavirus spread to solar system as space missions put on standby

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By Jeremy Wilks
The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, carrying the Solar Orbiter, lifts off
The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, carrying the Solar Orbiter, lifts off   -   Copyright  NASA

Spacecraft flying around Mars and on their way to the Sun are being placed on standby as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic spread into the solar system.

The spacecraft have not caught any kind of interplanetary bug, but the European Space Agency (ESA) has been forced to focus efforts on the most pressing activities, and wind down everything else.

ESA Director General Jan Wörner told Euronews the agency had seen coronavirus "coming towards us like a tsunami", and had moved into teleworking mode over two weeks ago. ESA normally has around 5,000 staff across its key sites in Germany, France, Spain and Italy, but now has fewer than 100 on site. ESA has around 50 cases of coronavirus among its staff, according to Wörner.

The decision means a shutdown in instrument operation and data gathering on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which is sniffing out signs of life on the red planet, while the veteran MarsExpress spacecraft, which has been operating around Mars since 2004, has also had the Alt+F4 treatment and is now in standby mode.

ESA's latest mission, Solar Orbiter, which only launched in February 2020, is also powering down to a minimum for an unknown period, while continuing its lengthy cruise to the Sun. It had been in the middle of the first phase of commissioning of scientific instruments, but those are now halted. The JUICE mission to explore Jupiter's icy moons will also face delays ahead of launch.

More critical space activities are still ongoing. The International Space Station is being crewed and maintained as usual, while the agency also focuses energy on crucial Earth observation satellites such as the EU's Sentinel satellite fleet. ESA resources will also need to be channeled to a fly-by of Earth on 10th April by the BepiColombo probe, as it slingshots its way to Mercury.

Putting interplanetary spacecraft into standby mode is not considered a major problem for the coming months, according to mission operations chief at ESA, Paolo Ferri. “These probes are designed to safely sustain long periods with limited or no interaction with ground," he said.

Those spacecraft that do require attention are watched over by a single technician in a control room, supported by flight controllers working from home.

Wörner said one of his key concerns was to preserve Europe's space industry during the crisis. The sector includes large firms such as ArianeGroup and ThalesAleniaSpace, but also a wide range of specialised SMEs. "It is our obligation to make sure that we don't lose a lot of these companies," Wörner told Euronews. ESA's answer for the smaller firms is to change "the way of when to pay for what" - in other words moving billing and payment dates around to ensure some income to keep firms afloat. Larger companies, such as ArianeGroup, continue "critical activities", according to a spokesperson we reached via e-mail. The Avio aerospace company in Colifero, Italy, is still producing the Vega solid booster rockets.

As for the big projects due in the coming months, the picture is mixed. The ExoMars 2020 rover mission has been put back to 2022, but not because of coronavirus, rather due to technical delays. Meanwhile the maiden launch of the new Ariane 6 rocket remains on the agenda for the end of the year, although the ESA Director General admitted there was a good chance it could slip into 2021.

When will the space sector in Europe press Ctrl+Alt+Del and reboot all systems? ESA says it is monitoring and following national guidelines in each of its member states to be sure to comply with confinement rules, and in the meantime it aims to show itself as a model for best practice in working across borders in difficult times. As Wörner said, we always have space to remind us that "we are all the same species, on one small blue dot".