European Space Agency Scales Down Mission Operations Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

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In reaction to the escalating coronavirus pandemic, ESA has determined to additional cut back on-site group of workers at its challenge regulate heart in Darmstadt, Germany.

The new changes require quickly preventing tool operation and knowledge amassing on 4 Solar System science missions, which might be a part of the broader fleet of 21 spacecraft lately flown via the Agency from the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt.

ESA applied possibility mitigation measures early on. The overwhelming majority of ESA’s group of workers has been teleworking for almost two weeks. Only key group of workers appearing vital duties, which come with keeping up real-time spacecraft operations, are nonetheless provide on web site at ESA’s institutions during Europe.

ESA Main Control Room

Panorama of the Main Control Room at ESOC, ESA’s European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany, taken in 2012. Credit: ESA/J. Mai, CC BY-SA 3.zero IGO

Supporting enhanced nationwide measures

Recent tendencies, together with bolstered restrictions via nationwide, regional and native government throughout Europe and the primary sure take a look at outcome for COVID-19 throughout the group of workers at ESOC, have led the Agency to limit on-site group of workers at its challenge regulate heart even additional.

“Our priority is the health of our workforce, and we will therefore reduce activity on some of our scientific missions, especially on interplanetary spacecraft, which currently require the highest number of personnel on site,” says ESA’s Director of Operations Rolf Densing.

“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.”

Among the affected missions are:

Cluster – A four-spacecraft challenge introduced in 2000, orbiting Earth to research our planet’s magnetic atmosphere and the way it’s solid via the sun wind, the move of charged debris continuously launched via the Sun;
ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter – Launched in 2016, the spacecraft is in orbit round Mars, the place it’s been investigating the planet’s setting and offering knowledge relay for landers at the floor;
Mars Express – Launched in 2003, the workhorse orbiter has been imaging the Martian floor and sampling the planet’s setting for over one and a part a long time;
Solar Orbiter – ESA’s latest science challenge, introduced in February 2020 and lately en path to its science operations orbit across the Sun.

“It was a difficult decision, but the right one to take. Our greatest responsibility is the safety of people, and I know all of us in the science community understand why this is necessary,” says Günther Hasinger, ESA’s Director of Science. 

“This is a prudent step to ensure that Europe’s world-class science missions are safe, along with the instruments from European scientists and our international partners flying on our missions. We are talking about some of humankind’s most advanced scientific experiments – and if switching some missions into temporary standby keeps them safe, then this is what we will do.”

BepiColombo Earth Flyby

Artist’s affect of the BepiColombo spacecraft in cruise configuration, flying previous Earth and with the Sun within the background. After release, BepiColombo will go back to Earth two years later to make a gravity-assist flyby, earlier than flying via Venus two times and Mercury six instances earlier than coming into orbit across the innermost planet. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

The brief aid in group of workers on web site can even permit the ESOC groups to pay attention to keeping up spacecraft protection for all different missions concerned, particularly the Mercury explorer BepiColombo, which is on its technique to the innermost planet within the Solar System and would require some on-site fortify round its scheduled Earth flyby on April 10.

The difficult maneuver, which is able to use Earth’s gravity to regulate BepiColombo’s trajectory because it cruises in opposition to Mercury, can be carried out via an excessively small collection of engineers and in complete admire of social distancing and different well being and hygiene measures required via the present scenario.

Solar Orbiter Facing Sun

Artist affect of ESA’s Solar Orbiter in entrance of the Sun (to not scale). The Sun is in response to a picture captured via NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, and has been tailored for this creative view. Credit: spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; Sun: NASA / SDO / P. Testa (CfA)

Commissioning and primary check-out operations of medical tools at the lately introduced Solar Orbiter, which had begun closing month, had been quickly suspended.

ESA expects to renew those operations within the close to long term, in keeping with the improvement of the coronavirus scenario. Meanwhile, Solar Orbiter will proceed its adventure in opposition to the Sun, with the primary Venus flyby to happen in December.

Coasting via house

“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, liable for challenge 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,” he provides. “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.”

Mars Express Artist's Impression

Artist’s affect of Mars Express. The background is in response to a real symbol of Mars taken via the spacecraft’s top solution stereo digicam. Credit: Spacecraft symbol credit score: ESA/ATG medialab; Mars: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.zero IGO

In the approaching days, ESA will track the evolving environmental prerequisites and restrictions, increase particular procedures, plans and determination common sense for the long run restart of the medical operations.

“The decision on when to return to normal science production mode will be taken independently for each mission, depending on several variables, including the type and complexity of each mission,” provides Paolo Ferri.

The measure does now not impact different ESA missions which can be operated from Darmstadt, corresponding to house science missions for astronomy or Earth remark missions, together with the ones which can be a part of the European Commission’s Copernicus program. For those missions, which require widespread care from floor, groups are in a position to habits maximum regulate movements remotely, with only a unmarried technician in a regulate room.

People first

Even earlier than this measure, the neighborhood of European and world scientists in the back of the interplanetary missions have been already feeling the consequences of the coronavirus outbreak, with processing and research hindered via native and nationwide paintings restrictions and the desire for social distancing. 

“I wish to thank all the scientists, engineers and other colleagues not only at mission control but across the Agency and at our partners who are keeping Europe’s essential space missions flying in the middle of this global crisis”, says ESA Director General Jan Wörner.

“I am glad to see how professional everyone at ESA is throughout this difficult situation. It shows that the Agency is, first and foremost, an ensemble of humans from all over Europe who care. Humans who care not only about science and space, but even more about the well-being of colleagues, families and fellow citizens all over the planet.”

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