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Coronavirus prevention measures take their toll on astronomy

An artist's depiction of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19.
An artist's depiction of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19.
(Image: © CDC)

As a frightening pandemic sweeps across the globe, it is becoming ever clearer that every aspect of life will be affected by it, even the study of what lies beyond Earth.

The spread of the new coronavirus, which causes a serious respiratory disease called COVID-19, is prompting nations around the world to take aggressive measures to slow its transmission. Most of those measures focus on reducing local and long-distance travel and avoiding large gatherings, including classes and conferences. Social distancing and working remotely are all the rage — and astronomers, while supporting such measures for their proven public health benefits, are still coming to terms with what the situation means for their profession.

All of the changes seem to come with a horde of emails that flood inboxes. "It's like a huge onslaught, I feel like I've gotten nothing done in the last week because there's so much coming at us," Meg Urry, an astronomer at Yale University, told Space.com. "In a time when we need to suddenly scramble and provide solutions we aren't familiar with — and we do need information — we're being deluged with information, so it's really hard to process and hard to be effective."

Related: Getting sick in space: How would NASA handle an astronaut disease outbreak?

Conference cancellations

One of the first clear impacts of the spreading virus was a spree of cancellations from conference organizers, beginning in early March. The first astronomy-related conference to cancel was the American Physical Society, which was scheduled to convene in Denver on March 2.

Other conferences have followed, including the same organization's April meeting in Washington, D.C., and the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) scheduled to begin March 16 in Texas. The American Astronomical Society (AAS) announced on Friday (March 13) that it was investigating converting its June meeting into a digital gathering.

"I'd rather decide early rather than late — that minimizes the cost to attendees and the complexities," AAS president Megan Donahue, an astronomer at Michigan State University, told Space.com. "Also, by redirecting our resources to looking at a virtual meeting, it's much cleaner and easier to focus on that."

For Donahue, it was also important that AAS' decision took into account what was really feasible right now and as well as when summer arrives. "We want to make sure we're giving ourselves goals that we can meet, as opposed to something that we could spend a lot of effort on, and then it turns out, we can't do it," she said. "We're trying to turn this into an opportunity to learn how to do this kind of meeting and to try a number of things — have the possibility of failure in some aspects of it."

Donahue and other astronomers emphasized that making conferences less reliant on travel has long been a goal for academics. "It's a good experiment, and it's probably in this time frame, sensible," Urry said of the decision to reimagine the AAS meeting. "Also, it points to maybe a future where at least some meetings are held that way, which would save us all a lot of money and a lot of carbon."

Nevertheless, she and other astronomers are worried about what could be lost without in-person meetings — small and large alike — for the foreseeable future. "It's not the same as being with your colleagues and having a meal and discussing ideas and so on and so forth," Urry said.

The opportunities conferences offer and the impact of their cancellation or digitization vary, particularly by career stage, Sarah Hörst, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University, told Space.com, and she hopes academics take that into account when responding to the situation.

"This is obviously going to have an impact on the field in a lot of different ways," Hörst said. "It's going to disproportionately impact early-career folks, which is true anytime there is a disruption in the way we normally do things. And of the early-career folks, it will almost certainly disproportionately impact those that are from minoritized groups that don't necessarily have the kind of networking and support structure to connect them to a safety net." 

To begin trying to address such inequities, Hörst set up a form for early-career researchers who would have attended the LPSC to share some details about what they're looking for professionally. She hopes that more established researchers take some time this week, when the conference would have taken place, to look through that list.

"Try to help connect these folks and figure out what we can do to support them," Hörst said. "Reach out to a couple of folks that are in your field and ask if they need a CV proofread, ask if there is anything that you could do to support them, say hi and see if you could set up a virtual coffee or something like that."

Those are exactly the sorts of individual interactions that Angela Marusiak, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland finishing up her dissertation this semester, was looking forward to at LPSC. Like everyone I spoke with for this story, she supported the COVID-19 mitigation measures without hesitation, even as she calculated the ways they would affect her. "It's a bit of a bummer," she said of the cancellation. "This would be a great time to meet with other scientists in the field, highlight what I've been doing."

Upheaval in education

Missing out on early-career networking at conferences isn't the only way COVID-19 response measures are complicating Marusiak's final semester. She's been staying in as much as possible to avoid catching something, particularly while still working on her thesis.

But the pandemic may also change the way she completes the ritual public dissertation defense, which she is scheduled to do in late April. That oral presentation is the culmination of any doctoral degree and is typically done in person, with the committee overseeing it in one room. "There's the potential that I might end up having to do my defense remotely instead of in person, which always adds the risk of, What if videoconferencing crashes? — things like that," Marusiak said.

It's not just last-semester students who are experiencing the upheaval in academia, of course: Students at every level are finding their classes moved online, and some are also dealing with being sent away as campuses close down completely. Even if those students can get home, they may find plenty of pain and uncertainty there as well.

"What we worry about, though, is people going home and being in personal situations where a grandparent or a parent is under duress, and that's going to be tougher," Donahue said. "What we anticipate doing for those students is just being as accommodating as we can. It's time to be kind and not super-rigorous."

Amid all of this, professors are scrambling to convert their classes into something students can complete online, with at best a couple weeks of notice. For astronomy classes, as for any science program, lab-based coursework is particularly complicated to re-envision online. But even lectures need to be rethought, not just relocated.

Between the scramble to go digital and all the other disruptions caused by the COVID-19 response, Hörst said she expects this might not be the single most academically successful semester students ever experience. "I worry a little bit about how this is all going to turn out in terms of people actually learning the material that they need to learn for the rest of the semester," she said. "If that means that some of our students have to relearn planetary atmospheres next year, then that's just what we're going to have to live with."

Of course, not all students taking courses related to physics and astronomy are doing so because they will be in those fields. That's a major concern for Rachel Paterno-Mahler, an astrophysicist at the W.M. Keck Science Department, which oversees science coursework at Pitzer, Claremont McKenna and Scripps colleges in California.

"I'm pretty worried about my premeds, too," she said. "They take physics because they want to prepare for the MCAT, so I'm worried about how this could affect their ability to take this test to get into medical schools."

Researching remotely

Then, there's the other side of academia: conducting new research, which becomes the subject of coursework far down the line. Here, astronomers have a bit of a head start on colleagues in other fields, several researchers suggested.

First of all, astronomers tend to be used to dealing with digital tools to facilitate long-distance communication. "The astronomy community is pretty global," Paterno-Mahler said. "We all have collaborators flung worldwide, we're used to telecons, we're used to email, we're used to asynchronous communications."

And while some astronomers maintain labs and conduct experiments on Earth, many rely on data about places that COVID-19 cannot possibly reach. Getting that data can be a little trickier. Space-based instruments are generally quite up to the challenge, Emily Levesque, an astronomer at the University of Washington who wrote a book coming out this summer about astronomical observing, told Space.com.

Ground-based observatory procedures are a bit more scattered in terms of their preparedness for measures like those implemented to address coronavirus, she said. Although some facilities still require scientists to gather their data in person, in general, observatories have been moving toward less time on-site since the late 1960s, she said.

But only a handful of telescopes are completely robotic, with telescopes able to operate without any staff on-site. The majority of observatories fall somewhere in between, requiring some hands-on attention, but not necessarily from the observing scientist.

"Except in cases of robotic telescopes, remote means that fewer people are on-site or that the astronomer is not on-site, not that nobody's on-site," Levesque said. "Most telescopes still require a person to operate them." Fortunately, those instruments typically rely on small staffs and are found in remote areas, making them somewhat compatible with social distancing.

For the astronomers looking to use these instruments, "remote observing" doesn't necessarily mean they can gather data from their homes or wherever else they happen to be. Most work involving remote observing actually sends astronomers to dedicated control rooms that are simply easier to reach than the observatories themselves. Those rooms act as communications and data hubs that are connected to the on-site staff. "It's not just your laptop and an internet connection," Urry said. "It is more complicated than that, it takes a little bit of money to set it up and to maintain it."

Precisely how resilient these remote control rooms and the on-site work they rely on will be in the face of the new coronavirus containment measures is still unclear. "Telescope time and access is a pretty precious resource, so I know that efforts will be made to keep things running as long as it's safe to do so," Levesque said.

And while observatories have hustled to beef up their remote capabilities as the coronavirus began to spread, some of those initiatives are now rolling back, with telescopes forced to close their eyes. Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, for example, instituted a remote contingency plan for its Magellan telescopes, then ceased observations yesterday (March 17) for at least two weeks, according to a statement.

'Shuttering an observatory and letting the telescopes sit idle is extremely rare given how precious telescope time is in our profession and typically only happens in conjunction with severe natural disasters or safety concerns," Levesque wrote in a follow-up email. "It's yet another example of just how serious the evolving worldwide COVID-19 situation has become."

More to come

Although it's easy to feel like the world has long been mired in this pandemic, epidemiologists emphasize that the situation is still developing. That means its impacts on astronomy will change, too.

One consequence that astronomers are bracing for is financial, given the upheaval that COVID-19's spread has wrought on the stock exchange and the labor market. "Universities' budgets are going to be hit big time, because they depend on the endowments, and endowment return is going to be a lot lower," Urry said. "Or if they're public universities, they depend also on on state funding, and all these things are going to be very, very negative, very similar probably to the 2008 recession." In particular, she said, she's worried about how faculty will find the money to fund their students' salaries for the research they do.

Another consequence that might unfold over the coming months is interference with spacecraft missions scheduled to launch. It's not yet clear how much the strict clean-room procedures that already guide their construction may buffer them from measures meant to deter the novel coronavirus. But one thing is for certain: That construction can't be done remotely. "I can't assemble a Mars rover in my living room," Hörst said. "I mean, it'd be really awesome if I could, don't get me wrong."

And beyond all these tangible impacts and whatever others develop, astronomers will need to deal with the same uncertainties of the continuing crisis as everyone else.

"The biggest disruptions are going to be changes in routine and underlying anxiety about what's happening," Paterno-Mahler said.

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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