The COVID-19 has come to destabilize everything on our planet and it seems beyond. We are seeing (and experiencing) strong measures by governments and responsible agencies that will affect many businesses. And what is also beginning to be noticed is that the space industry is being affected by the impact of the Coronavirus.
In general what we see is that, as far as possible, efforts have been made to ensure that employees work from home. But as we have seen for other technology industries, supplies can cause delays in plans, although there are some cases where the plan is followed.
ExoMars in Europe
The European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos (the Russian one) announced yesterday that their joint mission ExoMars is being postponed to 2022. While it was expected to launch this year. They explain from ESA that it has been a difficult but weighed decision and that “they cannot afford any margin of error,” as Jan Wörner, ESA’s general director, clarifies in the joint statement.
The development of the mission, although advanced and at a good pace according to the director, could be affected by movement restrictions due to containment measures. There are still many tests to be carried out in addition, for example to the parachutes of the Rosalind Franklin rover, which is why this margin of two more years has been given.
Regarding the measures in general for its workers, the European agency launched teleworking since last week, although there is personnel who still travel to their job. Rolf Densing, ESA’s director of operations, says there have never been so few people working there in the entire history of the agency’s control center.
They explain in the European Agency that the objective is to keep maintenance tasks for missions in orbit, such as monitoring that there are no collisions with space debris or managing scientific instrumentation.
To do this, they are taking the necessary precautions in order to minimize contact between the personnel, keeping the resource of minimizing it even more if in the future this is necessary.
For their part, in Roscosmos they have decided to cancel everything related to media coverage in relation to the launch from Kazakhstan in conjunction with NASA. The agency has continued with its launches until March 21 and has not made any public statement regarding the closure of its centers or the measures for COVID-19 beyond the cancellation of the mission we were discussing.
Space X in U.S
NASA centers have been moving from state to state since the coronavirus crisis splashed across the U.S. Some centers have gone from 2 to 4 in some days, state 1 corresponding to the usual state (all open and accessible) and state 4 to the closure of the center (with minimal access for maintenance).
The US agency has halted the production and testing of its manned mission to Luna Artemis that was planned for 2024 (a date that will probably be modified by this break).
A decision that came after applying the necessary restrictions to safeguard the safety of workers at the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana and the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, both key in the development of the SLS rocket.
Teleworking is also imposed in this agency and all trips are suspended, with three-four centers closed and the rest open with access to the minimum possible number of personnel. Measures that were put in place when a positive case of COVID-19 was detected in the Stennis center.
At Johnson Space Center (Houston), controllers continue to operate on the International Space Station, being the minimum personnel, also being in state 4.
It is not yet known how all these measures will impact the rest of the plans and launches, taking into account the one that in theory will be carried out on April 9 from Kazakhstan (being a manned mission, but it would not be a surprise if it were also canceled. ) and then return to Earth of three astronauts who are currently on the ISS.
The launch that will start the journey of Perseverance, its next rover to Mars, is still standing for now (in July).
SpaceX, As On Last Friday
As for SpaceX, last Friday it was said by Buzzfeed that for now, they had decided not to close their centers and that there could be a positive case. On their website, there is no official statement and on March 18 they made their last launch to put the fifth batch of Starlink satellites into orbit, It is also the first time that the first stage of a Falcon 9 goes out into space for the fifth time.
Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, reported that the manned flight to the ISS (in conjunction with NASA) planned for the month of May is maintained. So for now, for his part, there doesn’t seem to be much change.
At Blue Origin they also said they were continuing with their activity, although trying to get their employees to telework. The company informed CNBC that they were still evaluating the impact of all this on its main operations, but that they were giving financial support for the quarantine situation and applying social distancing measures in cases where remote work is not possible.
Space Missions in Asia
In China, the ambitious mission to Mars scheduled for July will not be affected at the moment, as it is “politically important”. Apparently everything that happened with the outbreak has affected the way their team works (limiting contact, minimizing personnel, etc.), but not to the point of causing delays. Of course, as in the case of Roscosmos, the launch will take place behind closed doors.
Nor does the United Arab Emirates’ Hope mission to Mars appear to have been postponed. In theory, the launch will take place in 2021, so it will have to be seen if there are finally no changes to the agenda.
It is very possible that these situations will change soon when we are still facing this pandemic that has required extraordinary measures at the global level. We will update in each case, and above all, we hope that the workers who have to go in person to their workplace have, as specified in each case, good security measures.