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Europe stalls science on 4 space missions due to coronavirus pandemic

An artist's visualization of BepiColombo's flyby of Earth.
An artist's visualization of BepiColombo's flyby of Earth.
(Image: © ESA)

As concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic continue to grow, the European Space Agency (ESA) is scaling back on-site personnel and hitting pause on several scientific missions. 

This decision, which will affect four out of the ESA's 21 active space missions, will allow the agency to divert resources to support the agency's BepiColombo mission to Mercury. That spacecraft is en route to a mission-critical flyby of Earth on April 10 that will help ensure the probe's trajectory to the solar system's innermost planet. This move by ESA has placed the four selected missions in a safe and temporary standby.

"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," Tolf Densing, ESA's Director of Operations, said in a statement.  

Related: BepiColombo in Pictures: A Mercury Mission by Europe and Japan

"These [spacecraft] 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."

The first of the missions affected is Cluster, which launched four spacecraft in 2000. Those probes are studying the magnetic environment around Earth and how that environment interacts with the solar wind (plasma and particles which stream from the sun). The mission has been essential to understanding our planet's magnetosphere. 

Another affected spacecraft is the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a collaboration between ESA and Russia's Roscosmos. The probe orbits Mars and monitors the Red Planet's atmosphere. It studies seasonal changes in the planet's atmosphere, measures trace gases in the atmosphere and can map Mars' subsurface hydrogen, which could reveal water ice on the planet. 

A second Mars orbiter, Mars Express, is also subject to the new restrictions. This spacecraft has been studying Mars for over a decade and a half after it launched in 2003. It images the Martian surface and studies the planet's atmosphere. 

The pause is also affecting ESA's newest spacecraft, Solar Orbiter, which launched just last month in February 2020. This probe is on its way to getting a close look at the sun, particularly its poles. 

Thomas Zurbuchen, the Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, showed his support for ESA's decision on Twitter

"We support @HasingerProf and his @esascience colleagues in their decision to move these valuable and history making missions into a state that is as safe as possible given the current conditions on [Earth emoji]," Zurbuchen said. 

Stalling these missions will support the BepiColombo mission, which is just a few weeks away from its flyby of Earth. This close-to-home maneuver will use Earth's gravity to influence the spacecraft's trajectory to push its trajectory toward Mercury. The staff in charge of this flyby will continue to practice social distancing and using health precautions, according to the statement. 

BepiColombo, which launched in 2018, is Europe's first mission to Mercury and is a partnership with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. It will endure the dramatic temperature swings near the planet closest to the sun in order to gather groundbreaking scientific data. 

"It was a difficult decision, but the right one to take," Günther Hasinger, ESA's Director of Science, said in the statement. "Our greatest responsibility is the safety of people, and I know all of us in the science community understand why this is necessary."

The measure was also carefully targeted to focus resources on the spacecraft that need terrestrial support most right now. "This is 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," Hasinger said. "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."

Follow Chelsea Gohd on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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