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Impact of the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic on science and technology

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The 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic has affected many science, space and technology institutions and government agencies worldwide, leading to reduced productivity on a number of fields and programs.

Space

United States

The James Webb Space Telescope's launch has been delayed
Components of the Space Launch System has stopped
International Space Station mission critical controllers now takeover operation of the station

NASA announced the temporary closure of all its field center visitor complexes until further notice, as well as requiring all non-critical personnel to work from home if possible. Production and manufacture of the Space Launch System at the Michoud Assembly Facility has stopped,[1][2] as well as further delays to the James Webb Space Telescope.[3]

The majority of personnel at the Johnson Space Center have transitioned to teleworking, and International Space Station mission critical personnel reside in the mission control room until further notice. Station operations are relatively unaffected, but new expedition astronauts face longer and stricter quarantines before flight.[4]

NASA's emergency response framework has varied depending on local virus cases around its agency field centers. As of March 24, 2020, the following space centers have been escalated to Level 4:

Two facilities will remain at Stage 4 after reporting new coronavirus cases, the Michoud Assembly Facility reporting its first employee testing positive for COVID-19, and the Stennis Space Center recording a second case of a member of the NASA family with the virus. The Kennedy Space Center will remain at stage 3, with one member of the workforce that has tested positive but given mandatory telework policy the individual had not been on site for over a week prior to symptoms.

At Stage 4, mandatory telework is in effect for all personnel, with the exception of limited personnel required for mission-essential work and to care-take, maintain the safety and security of the facility.[5]

Companies

Small aerospace companies such as Bigelow Aerospace have collapsed as a result of the pandemic.[6] Larger companies such as SpaceX and Boeing remain somewhat economically unaffected, apart from extra safety precautions and measures for their employees to limit the spread of the virus in their workplaces.

Europe

The European Space Agency has ordered many of its science and technology facilities' workforce to also telework as much as possible.

Recent developments, including strengthened restrictions by national, regional and local authorities across Europe and the first positive test result for COVID-19 within the workforce at the European Space Operations Centre, have led the agency to restrict on-site personnel at its mission control centres even further.

ESA's Director of Operations - Rolf Densing, has strongly recommended mission personnel to reduce activity of scientific missions, especially on interplanetary spacecraft.

The affected spacecraft are currently in 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 mission launched in 2000, orbiting Earth to investigate our planet's magnetic environment and how it is 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.

ESA's Director of Science - Günther Hasinger, commented: “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".

The temporary reduction in personnel on site will also allow the ESOC teams to concentrate on maintaining spacecraft safety for all other missions involved, in particular the Mercury explorer BepiColombo, which is on its way to the innermost planet in the Solar System and will require some on-site support around its scheduled Earth flyby on 10 April.

The challenging manoeuvre, which will use Earth's gravity to adjust BepiColombo's trajectory as it cruises towards Mercury, will be performed by a very small number of engineers and in full respect of social distancing and other health and hygiene measures required by the current situation. Commissioning and first check-out operations of scientific instruments on the recently launched Solar Orbiter, which had begun last month, have been temporarily suspended.

ESA expects to resume these operations in the near future, in line with the development of the coronavirus situation. Meanwhile, Solar Orbiter will continue its journey towards the Sun, with the first Venus flyby to take place in December.[7]

Japan

JAXA space and science operations largely remain unaffected. However all visitors to their numerous field centers have been suspended until April 30 to reduce contamination.[8][9]

Science

The pandemic may have improved scientific communication or established new forms of it. For instance a lot of data is being released on preprint servers and is getting dissected on social Internet platforms and sometimes in the media before entering formal peer review. Scientists are reviewing, editing, analyzing and publishing manuscripts and data at record speeds and in large numbers. This intense communication may have allowed an unusual level of collaboration and efficiency among scientists.[10]

National and Intergovernmental Laboratories

United States Department of Energy federal scientific laboratories such as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have closed all its doors to all visitors and many employees, and non-essesntial staff and scientists are required to work from home if possible. Contractors also are strongly adviced to isolate their facilities and staff unless necessary. The overall operation of the ORNL remains somewhat unaffected.[11]

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been tasked by the White House Coronavirus Task Force to utilize most of its supercomputing capabiltiy for further research of the virus stream, possible mutations and other factors; while temporary reducing other projects or delaying them indefinitely.[12]

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory has closed all six sites across Europe (Barcelona, Grenoble, Hamburg, Heidelberg, Hinxton and Rome). All of EMBL's host governments have introduced strict controls in response to the coronavirus. EMBL staff have been instructed to follow local government advice. A small number of staff have been authorized to attend the sites to provide an essential service such as maintenance of animal facilities or data services. All other staff have been instructed to stay at home. EMBL has also cancelled all visits to sites by non-staff groups. This includes physical participation in the Courses and Conferences programme at Heidelberg, the EMBL-EBI Training courses, and all other seminars, courses and public visits at all sites. Meanwhile, the European Bioinformatics Institute is creating a European COVID-19 Data Platform for data/information exchange. The goal is to collect and share rapidly available research data to enable synergies, cross-fertilisation and use of diverse data sets with different degrees of aggregation, validation and/or completeness. The platform is envisaged to consist of two connected components, the SARS-CoV-2 Data Hubs organising the flow of SARS-CoV-2 outbreak sequence data and providing comprehensive open data sharing for the European and global research communities, and one broader COVID-19 Portal.[13][14][15]

Telecommunications

The coronavirus caused a huge strain on internet traffic, with an increase of 60% and 50% in broadband usage of BT Group and Vodafone respectively. In the meantime, Netflix, Disney+, Google, Amazon and YouTube considered the notion to reduce their video quality to prevent the overload. Meanwhile, Sony started slowing down PlayStation game downloads in Europe to maintain the traffic level.[16]

Cellular service providers in mainland China have reported significant drops in subscriber numbers, partially due to migrant workers being unable to return to work as a result of quarantine lockdowns; China Mobile saw a reduction of 8 million subscribers, while China Unicom had 7.8 million fewer subscribers, and China Telecom lost 5.6 million users.[17]

See also

References

  1. ^ Northon, Karen (March 20, 2020). "NASA Leadership Assessing Mission Impacts of Coronavirus". NASA.
  2. ^ "MAFspace". mafspace.msfc.nasa.gov.
  3. ^ Clark, Stephen. "NASA confirms work stoppage on James Webb Space Telescope – Spaceflight Now".
  4. ^ "Johnson Space Center Taking Safety Precautions Amid Coronavirus". Houstonia Magazine.
  5. ^ "March 24 Update on NASA Response to Coronavirus – Administrator Jim Bridenstine". blogs.nasa.gov.
  6. ^ "Bigelow Aerospace lays off entire workforce". SpaceNews.com. March 23, 2020.
  7. ^ "ESA scales down science mission operations amid pandemic". esa.int.
  8. ^ "JAXA | Tsukuba Space Center". JAXA | Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Retrieved Mar 31, 2020.
  9. ^ "JAXA | Field Centers". JAXA | Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Retrieved Mar 31, 2020.
  10. ^ Kupferschmidt, Kai (26 February 2020). "'A completely new culture of doing research.' Coronavirus outbreak changes how scientists communicate". Science | AAAS. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  11. ^ "COVID-19 Advisory | ORNL". ornl.gov.
  12. ^ "Lab antibody, anti-viral research aids COVID-19 response | Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory". llnl.gov.
  13. ^ "EMBL's response to the coronavirus outbreak".
  14. ^ "EMBL-EBI leads International collaboration to share COVID-19 research data".
  15. ^ "EMBL-EBI COVID-19 Data Platform".
  16. ^ "The internet is under huge strain because of the coronavirus. Experts say it can cope — for now". CNBC. 27 March 2020.
  17. ^ Shirley Zhao (March 23, 2020). "China's Mobile Carriers Lose 21 Million Users as Virus Bites". Bloomberg.
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