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Climate Satellites Still On the Job, Delivering Data to Help Coronavirus Fight

Their manufacturers may be offline, and their mission control stations are on skeleton staff, but the NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) satellites that relentlessly gather data to track a changing climate are still on duty overhead.

“The millions of data points captured by these satellites feed the scientific models that track and predict the pace of climate change,” Bloomberg Green reports. “That scientific evidence serves as the foundation for key environmental policy decisions such as the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement.” So while the pandemic is affecting the production and deployment of new satellites, 95% of ESA personnel are working from home, and some scientists have fallen ill, “the agency’s 15 satellites currently in orbit gathering climate data continue to operate.”

“We have to maintain the data flowing to scientists,” said 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.”

Teams are still onsite at the ESA’s mission control center in Darmstadt, Germany, controlling flights to prevent satellites from colliding, with the scaled-back staff teams using smaller rooms to minimize interaction. “We’re very much used to working remotely on a daily basis, and we use very much the tools that allow us to do that,” Cheli explained. “These days, we’re stretching this to the maximum.” 

The satellite data are used for many purposes besides climate change predictions—including fighting the pandemic. “With many European countries implementing border controls to curtail the virus’s spread, traffic has been piling up at checkpoints,” Bloomberg writes. “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.” An ESA satellite was also the source of the nitrogen dioxide data showing reduced air pollution in coronavirus-ravaged northern Italy. 

“This data is essential to our daily lives, more than we can actually imagine,” Cheli said. “That’s why we have a responsibility to make sure the operations continue.”

Bloomberg traces a similar situation in the United States, where some satellite program staff have been diagnosed with COVID-19, some operations have been suspended, but Earth observations continue. “There has been no interruption of climate-relevant data from these missions,” wrote a spokesperson for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). “NOAA is prepared,” and “in the event that any of our facilities are affected by COVID-19, we will continue to meet our mission,” added a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NASA has had to postpone three airborne science missions looking at climate change and extreme weather, but the agency said there would be no serious impact on scientific research.