The Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF), which normally brings thousands of people to the Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York for a weekend each year, will switch to a virtual-only meeting in April as a novel coronavirus countermeasure.
On Wednesday (March 11), the New York City-area college banned gatherings of more than 50 people at a time, in light of growing measures in the United States and around the world to deal with the newly declared pandemic. As of today (March 12), there are seven confirmed cases of coronavirus in Rockland county, New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a tweet.
While the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, is steadily rising in the United States, the World Health Organization notes that cases in China are declining, and even the countries facing the largest outbreaks are seeing patients in only a few geographical areas.
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To contain the pandemic, some jurisdictions are adopting voluntary "social distancing" protocols, which has meant canceling meetings — or making them online-only, where possible.
"NEAF The Virtual Experience will be held one day only on April 4," the Rockland Astronomy Club, which organizes the annual event, said in a statement. "Attendees to this historic virtual online event will experience product demonstrations, door prizes, and amazing speakers that have made the Northeast Astronomy Forum legendary."
The organizers also pledged to reschedule NEAF, the largest trade show of its type, for later this year. The announcement came on the same day that President Donald Trump issued a temporary ban on travel from Europe to the United States and a key satellite industry conference in Washington, Satellite 2020, shut down a day early, both out of coronavirus concerns.
NEAF did not announce any changes to its speakers. One of the keynote speakers is Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator, who is expected to speak on the progress of the commercial crew program (which is supposed to send astronauts to the International Space Station later this year). He will also talk about the Artemis project to return humans to the moon in 2024.
Also speaking will be Ed Guinan, an astrophysicist at Villanova University in Radnor Township, Pennsylvania. Guinan has been studying the dimming of Betelgeuse, which is a massive red giant star that could go supernova sometime in the next 100,000 years. Emerging research suggests the dimming might be due to dust, instead of the star's surface cooling before an explosion.
Other speakers include former NASA astronaut Jerry Ross, NASA solar scientist Alex Young (who will speak about the Parker Solar Probe mission examining the sun up close), Boeing Starliner commercial crew mission designer Tom Mulder, Samuel D. Hale (executive director of Mount Wilson Observatory), Dianna Colman (president of the Yerkes Future Foundation, which recently announced it will take over ownership of Yerkes Observatory from the University of Chicago), and Jani Radebaugh (who is part of the team of Dragonfly, a planned mission to Titan scheduled to launch in 2026.)
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