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Deep-space missions impacted by coronavirus, says European Space Agency

The coronavirus outbreak is even impacting deep-space exploration, with the European Space Agency (ESA) this week pausing data-gathering operations on four of its deep-space probes.

The suspension, caused by a reduction of on-site staff at ESA’s mission control center in Darmstadt, Germany, has prompted the agency to effectively put the probes’ science instruments into a state of sleep. When the worst of the outbreak passes and staff return from working remotely, the instruments will resume operations.

The affected missions include:

  • Cluster: A four-spacecraft mission launched in 2000, orbiting Earth to investigate our planet’s magnetic environment and how it’s forged by the solar wind, the stream of charged particles constantly released by the sun.
  • ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter: Launched in 2016, the spacecraft is in orbit around Mars, where it has been investigating the planet’s atmosphere and providing data relay for landers on the surface.
  • Mars Express: Launched in 2003, the workhorse orbiter has been imaging the Martian surface and sampling the planet’s atmosphere for over one and a half decades.
  • Solar Orbiter: ESA’s newest science mission, launched in February 2020 and currently en route to its science operations orbit around the sun.

“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,” Rolf Densing, ESA’s director of operations, said in a release.

Densing added that the affected probes all 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.”

Günther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science, said the move to suspend operations was 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.”

He added: “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.”

Similar to NASA, the ESA has asked its staff across Europe to work from home if possible, as part of measures to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19. Most of the ESA’s workforce has been working remotely for the last two weeks, with only key personnel coming on site to perform critical tasks such as maintaining real-time spacecraft operations.

The ESA earlier this month announced it had postponed the launch of its much-anticipated ExoMars rover mission until 2022, partly due to COVID-19, but also because the technology needs more testing.

Germany has so far reported nearly 33,000 COVID-19 infections, though the number of recorded deaths remains relatively low at 159.

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