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ESA restores operations of space science missions

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WASHINGTON — The European House Company has restored operations of 4 house science missions it positioned on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, a transfer that illustrated how one company’s actions can have an effect on others.

ESA introduced March 24 it had suspended operations of the Cluster, ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, Mars Express and Solar Orbiter missions, placing them into protected modes for indefinite durations. The company mentioned on the time staffing restrictions on the European House Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, together with one individual there testing optimistic for COVID-19, compelled ESA to place these missions on maintain to dedicate workers to different missions.

Nevertheless, on April 2, ESA introduced it was resuming operations of all 4 missions that had been suspended, going into new element in regards to the COVID-19 case that led to these missions being suspended.

Within the assertion, Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations at ESOC, mentioned an worker got here into contact with about 20 folks on the heart within the two days earlier than his prognosis. These 20 folks, he mentioned, primarily labored on the 4 missions whose operations have been suspended, and have been requested to remain dwelling as a precautionary measure. Constructing on the heart have been additionally “completely cleaned and disinfected” to remove any traces of the virus.

“We determined to preventatively droop operations on these missions till the chance of a possible cascade of follow-on infections and quarantines disappeared,” Ferri mentioned. Not one of the staff positioned in self-quarantine confirmed signs of the illness, and Ferri mentioned that one that was identified with COVID-19 “is fortunately advantageous, and recovering nicely.”

On the time ESA introduced the suspended operations, the company didn’t hyperlink it to controllers engaged on particular missions being doubtlessly uncovered to the illness. As a substitute, it mentioned it was primarily concentrating on interplanetary missions—of the 4, solely Cluster is orbiting the Earth—as a result of they require extra personnel on web site.

Ferri mentioned ESA was taking steps to reduce contact amongst these personnel who’re nonetheless working on the heart, whereas many others telework. “There are only a few folks. They work fully remoted. I feel ESOC now, from a COVID-19 an infection case, is among the most secure locations yow will discover in Germany,” he mentioned.

He added that if one other worker does come down with the illness, the bodily separation amongst personnel means “there’s little or no likelihood we have to quarantine different folks.”

ESA began restarting the missions with Photo voltaic Orbiter, launched Feb. 9 and nonetheless present process commissioning of its devices. “It takes a while,” Ferri mentioned. “We began with Photo voltaic Orbiter, as a result of we’re nonetheless in a guide mode of operations. It’s simpler to restart.”

Quickly halting Photo voltaic Orbiter operations had an impact that went past ESA, because the mission is a joint one with NASA. At a March 31 assembly of the Nationwide Academies’ Committee on Photo voltaic and House Physics, Nicola Fox, director of NASA’s heliophysics division, mentioned that at time ESA put the spacecraft into protected mode, 9 of its 10 devices had gone by means of preliminary commissioning.

At that assembly, she mentioned it appeared ESA would quickly resume spacecraft operations. “They labored out a option to do it remotely, so there’ll solely be one or two folks having to enter the mission ops heart,” she mentioned. “They’ll attempt to proceed to do some low-level commissioning as we transfer ahead.”

Ferri mentioned that, after Photo voltaic Orbiter, ESA would transfer to restart the 4 Cluster satellites and the 2 Mars orbiters. The ExoMars Hint Fuel Orbiter (TGO) additionally serves as a communications relay for spacecraft on the floor. Having it offline was a priority for Mars scientists due to NASA’s plans, in its fiscal yr 2021 finances proposal, to finish operations of the Mars Odyssey orbiter, which additionally serves as a communications relay for the InSight lander and Curiosity rover.

“I feel the COVID scenario we’re in proper now highlights the fragility of that, as a result of TGO is in protected mode proper now and never taking passes due to how ESA is shut down,” mentioned Bethany Ehlmann, a professor of planetary science at Caltech and member of the Nationwide Academies’ Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science, at a March 31 committee assembly. “If we didn’t have Odyssey, we’d positively be seeing impacts on InSight operations.”

Ferri mentioned it’s commonplace for missions, specifically Mars orbiters, to be out of contact with Earth for prolonged intervals. Outages lasting a couple of weeks at a time happen when Mars goes behind the solar as seen from Earth. “This time stopping it for points associated to well being of the bottom folks after all is exclusive,” he mentioned, “however, to be sincere, you’re feeling much more compelled to try this moderately than saving a machine.”

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