Michigan Engineering News

Lockdown for space agencies put research projects in limbo

University of Michigan researchers’ work on NASA and European Space Agency projects that have been altered by COVID-19.

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have responded to the coronavirus pandemic by shutting down work on a host of projects and programs, several of which involve researchers at the University of Michigan.

For some, work can continue, albeit on a lesser scale. For others work is on hold for the foreseeable future.

Former U-M professor Thomas Zurbuchen, now NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, wrote to space agency personnel on Monday.

“This situation will undoubtedly cause some inefficiencies, but we continue to be supportive of any research that can be done remotely,” he said. 

Solar Orbiter

Seven weeks ago, Sue Lepri and Jim Raines were in Florida, watching in excitement as ESA’s Solar Orbiter lifted off from Cape Canaveral. The mission was to provide information on the dynamics between the sun and Earth from a new vantage point – 60m solar radii.

The pair of U-M researchers are co-investigators on Orbiter’s Solar Wind Analyzer. The suite of instruments includes the Heavy Ion Sensor (HIS), partially built at U-M. HIS is a kind of ion mass spectrometer that breaks down the composition of the solar wind it samples.

“The commissioning of our instrument and the rest of the payload was indeed put on hold by ESA, to allow them to drastically reduce staffing at ESA’s Space Operations Center in Germany after a few cases showed up there,” said Raines, an research scientist in the Department of cClimate and Space Sciences and Engineering. “That means that much of our work analyzing the commissioning data has been delayed.   

“We were able to accomplish about 75% of the tasks planned to test run each of the HIS subsystems, which is most of the commissioning process.”

 The team has found ways to keep moving the work forward during the shutdown.

“We keep working on our mission operations and data analysis system, and we continue to work with our ground calibration data and instrument modeling,” said Lepri, an associate professor of climate and space sciences and engineering. “So, all of that continues so that we will be in a good position to interpret the data when it comes.” 

Parker Solar Probe

Solar Orbiter serves as a companion mission with the Parker Solar Probe, which launched in August 2018. Designed to come closer to the sun than any previous spacecraft, Parker collects data from the heliosphere.

Justin Kasper, a U-M professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, serves as principal investigator for Parker’s Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons (SWEAP) instrument suite.

For the time being, researchers can continue some of their work, but not at the same level as before COVID-19 arrived.

“Solar Probe uses a different operating strategy, where each instrument suite commands their own instruments on the spacecraft,” Kasper said. “So we can run them from our homes and not have to gather. So far so good.

“But a major concern is if the Deep Space Network starts having problems, they might not be able to fix the dishes right away. They might even postpone some repairs and take the dishes offline until this is over. That could mean starting to cut back talking to the spacecraft even if we’re doing fine. We will still command the suite, but it would probably mean downloading less data.“

Jupiter missions 

Xianzhe Jia, an associate professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, is involved in a host of NASA and ESA projects – all centered on the exploration and understanding of Jupiter.

The NASA missions are Europa Clipper, currently scheduled for launch in 2024, and the recently-selected Io Volcano Observer (IVO) Discovery mission. The ESA mission is the in-development Jupiter Icy moons Explorer (JUICE). 

“With all of these missions, we’ve been asked to put engineering work on hold due to the COVID-19 situation,” Jia said. “However, much of the science team work is still moving forward through remote collaborations.

“For instance, for the Europa Clipper magnetometer team, we are still hosting weekly team teleconferences and conducting analyses to support development of hardware and measurement requirements.”

Media Contact

James Lynch

Research News & Feature Writer