Coronavirus Can’t Keep the World’s Climate Satellites Down

Here’s one thing that hasn’t changed because of the coronavirus pandemic: NASA and the European Space Agency keep delivering climate data from satellites, even as mission control headquarters empty and some scientists fall ill.

The millions of data points captured by these satellites feed the scientific models that track and predict the pace of climate change. They’re how we know, for instance, that sea ice is melting, water levels are rising, and forests are disappearing. That scientific evidence serves as the foundation for key environmental policy decisions such as the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement in which countries agreed to cut emissions to keep global warming below 2° Celsius.

50,​820 Million metric tons of greenhouse emissions, most recent annual data -4.​78% Today’s arctic ice area vs. historic average

Dhaka, BangladeshMost polluted air today, in sensor range +1.​17° C Feb. 2020 increase in global temperature vs. 1900s average

$81.​9B Renewable power investment worldwide in Q4 2019 0 6 5 4 3 2 0 3 2 1 0 9 0 7 6 5 4 3 .0 2 1 0 9 8 0 3 2 1 0 9 0 3 2 1 0 9 0 2 1 0 9 8 0 6 5 4 3 2 0 8 7 6 5 4 Parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere

“We have to maintain the data flowing to scientists,” says Simonetta Cheli, head of the strategy, program, and coordination office at ESA’s Earth Observation division. “Gathering the data related to the environment and the state of the Earth and climate change is essential, so guaranteeing that those satellites are up in the air and running is a priority.”

The manufacturing and launch of new satellites are impacted by the situation, as well as some space missions. But the agency’s 15 satellites currently in orbit gathering climate data continue to operate. About 95% of ESA personnel across Europe are working from home as part of the agency’s efforts to shield employees from the novel coronavirus, Cheli says.

Some people still need to be there, though. Mission managers in Rome feed data requirements into ESA’s mission control center in Darmstadt, Germany. From there, officials control the spacecrafts, including flight dynamics and maneuvers to prevent satellite collision. “There are less people inside, teams are rotating and using smaller rooms to reduce interaction,” Cheli adds.

Working remotely isn’t new for scientists. Most are already used to working with colleagues in different countries and even continents—ESA’s headquarters, for instance, are in Paris, while the hardware center is in the U.K., mission control is in Germany, and mission management in Italy.

“We’re very much used to work remotely on a daily basis, and we use very much the tools that allow us to do that,” Cheli says. “But these days we’re stretching this to the maximum.”

The data satellites gather isn’t used solely for long-term climate change predictions. It has more immediate applications, as well, helping track volcanic activity in Italy and allowing fishermen in the U.K. to check weather conditions before heading out to sea.

Satellite data is helping governments fight the coronavirus outbreak, too. With many European countries implementing border controls to curtail the virus’s spread, traffic has been piling up at checkpoints, so satellite data has become an important tool for authorities to estimate the arrival of necessary food and medical supplies such as surgical masks, coats, and ventilators.

Readings from ESA’s Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite, which detects nitrogen dioxide emissions, also revealed that lockdowns had resulted in a drop in air pollution in northern Italy. “This data is essential to our daily lives, more than we can actually imagine,” Cheli says. “That’s why we have a responsibility to make sure that the operations continue.”  

The situation is similar at NASA in the U.S. Some employees have been diagnosed with the virus and several operations have been suspended, but Earth-observing satellite activity continues. “There has been no interruption of climate-relevant data from these missions,” a NASA spokesperson said by email. A spokesperson from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration echoed the same idea, also by email: “NOAA is prepared—in the event that any of our facilities are affected by Covid-19, we will continue to meet our mission.”

Some research expeditions are being disrupted by the global pandemic. Earlier this month, NASA confirmed that three airborne science campaigns slated to deploy during the spring have been rescheduled for later in the year. The delay of the missions, which study climate change and extreme weather, isn’t expected to impact scientific research, NASA said in a statement.

The MOSAiC expedition in the Arctic canceled all survey flights after the Norwegian government put in place measures to fight the virus. Exploration from three other icebreakers will continue as planned, the Alfred Wegener Institute said in a statement. A crew exchange at the Polarstern icebreaker will also go ahead in April, but AWI is taking extreme precautions which include testing incoming crew members twice before they board and setting up a quarantine ward at the ship.

MOSAiC expedition leader Markus Rex says that for the time being, he and his team will be focused on “finding the safest and most sensible course for the logistical operations at hand,” he says. “No one can predict how that situation will change over the next few months.”

— With assistance by Eric Roston

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