- The European Space Agency is putting four of its highest-profile missions on hold while dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
- With the health of its staff a priority, the agency keeps its employees at home and puts multiple spacecraft in safe mode to preserve resources for future scientific purposes.
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Almost all industries have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic worldwide. NASA is no different, as it has recently placed all of its facilities in a closed state and requires all but the most critical employees to work from home. Now the European Space Agency is grappling with its own difficult decisions in the wake of the crisis and has been forced to put four of its most high-tech pieces of space hardware to sleep … temporarily, of course.
ESA made its announcement in a press release revealing that the Solar Orbiter, the ExoMars Tracking Gas Orbiter, the Mars Express Orbiter, and a handful of other satellites orbiting Earth in "safe mode." That's really a fancy way of saying they'll put them to sleep until the science teams responsible for them can start science operations again.
The problem the European Space Agency has encountered here is simple: The agency's high-tech spacecraft regularly send observations and data, with some waiting for orders to know what to do next. Without personnel in command of operations centers, the overall scope of missions is affected and, ultimately, resources are wasted.
Every spacecraft from NASA, ESA, and anyone else I send into space has a limited lifespan. By placing ESA machines in safe mode, the agency can preserve some of that life and hopefully make the most of the spacecraft that have already been launched.
"Our priority is the health of our workforce, and therefore we will reduce activity on some of our scientific missions, especially on interplanetary spacecraft, which currently require the largest number of personnel on site," said the Director of Operations. ESA's Rolf Densing in a statement. "These have stable orbits and long mission durations, so turning off your scientific instruments and placing them in a safe configuration largely unattended for a certain period will have a negligible impact on the overall performance of your mission."
The agency really had no choice in the matter. Preventing staff from congregating and potentially spreading the virus to the rest of the organization is the top priority, and you cannot execute these missions without those people in their seats day after day.
As for when missions can start again, the European Space Agency cannot say for sure. The most it can offer is a vague window of the "near future," although with the rapidly changing pandemic situation it is almost impossible to say for sure.