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. “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.