Europe turns off instruments on some of its deep-space probes during coronavirus pandemic

The European Space Agency is four of its space missions in ‘safe configurations’ amid the new coronavirus pandemic as the agency intends to reduce the number of people who can come to ESA’s primary mission control center in Germany. The instruments on this spacecraft will be disabled and the vehicles will remain ‘largely unguarded’ as they travel through the solar system, according to ESA.

“Our priority is the health of our workforce and that is why we will reduce operations on some of our scientific missions, especially on interplanetary spacecraft, which currently require the largest workforce on the ground,” said Rolf Densing, ESA’s operations director. a statement.

Of the dark missions, two include Mars-orbiting vehicles – the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Mars Express – both of which are measuring the atmosphere of the Red Planet. A mission called Cluster also goes silent, including four spacecraft currently in orbit that investigate how particles from the sun interact with our planet’s magnetic field. ESA’s Solar Orbiter mission, which was just launched in February to study the poles of the Sun, is also turning off its instruments.

Most ESA employees have been working from home for the past two weeks, but the agency decided to increase restrictions at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, after an employee who worked there tested positive for COVID-19. Local, provincial and national governments in Europe have also implemented stricter restrictions across the continent, which have been taken into account in ESA’s decision.

The agency claims that these spacecraft are all in stable orbits and will be safe in these new configurations. “These probes are designed to safely support long periods of time with limited or no interaction with the ground, for example, necessary for the periods they spend behind the sun when viewed from Earth when radio contact is not available for weeks,” added Densing. “We are convinced that with very limited and rare interactions with ground control, the missions can remain safely in that mode of operation for months, if required by the duration of the coronavirus mitigation measures.”

Meanwhile, personnel still authorized for mission control will focus on servicing ESA’s other spacecraft throughout the solar system, including the BepiColombo vehicle headed for Mercury. That spacecraft is scheduled to fly Earth in April, and ESA says that only a “very small number of engineers” will be available to perform the maneuver. They will certainly keep the right social distance during the mission check.

These are not the first European space missions to experience delays and setbacks due to the new coronavirus pandemic. The launch of ESA’s Rosalind Franklin Mars rover was delayed until 2022, in part due to travel restrictions imposed across Europe. And launches from Europe’s main spaceport in French Guiana have been suspended indefinitely until the pandemic subsides.

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