How NASA is keeping coronavirus off the International Space Station

A mission is planned for just three weeks from now, but NASA has a plan.

How NASA is keeping coronavirus off the International Space Station

Crew health is always important as on this previous ISS mission

Image source: NASA.gov
  • Before liftoff on every mission since 1971, NASA crew members spend two weeks in a "health stabilization" quarantine.
  • Other employees of the agency have been given a response framework that tells them where and how to proceed with their duties.
  • For upcoming launches, NASA is depending on Russia and SpaceX to step up to the challenge.

There are no respirators in space. As concerned as you may be at the moment about coronavirus following you into your personal quarantine, imagine getting COVID-19 in space, trapped in a vehicle far above the nearest hospital. As the next planned mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on April 9 gets closer, it's reasonable to wonder what can be done to protect astronauts already aboard from the potentially catastrophic arrival of the coronavirus.

As of March 17, NASA has no plans to cancel or postpone this or any other planned missions in the near future. While the situation is continually being reassessed, the agency has a number of measures in place to protect the crews involved.

Astronaut taking a picture from outside the ISS

Taking a picture outside the ISS

Image source: NASA.gov

It's comforting to know that NASA has for some time been careful about allowing germs aloft. Before every mission, dating back to the Apollo 14 launch in 1971, crew members heading for orbit must first spend two weeks in a "health stabilization" quarantine. Prior to its implementation, pre-flight illnesses were a concern and a relatively common occurrence.

Prior to entering the quarantine for the upcoming mission, NASA will be testing crew members for coronavirus infection.

One of the mission's crew is a cosmonaut from Kazakhstan (the location of the launch site). This past weekend, the nation reported its first coronavirus test and then closed its borders to outsiders.

NASA's team will be allowed entry, though the launch personnel roster is being pared down to as few people as possible. Safe travel arrangements are still being assessed. No reporters will be allowed to attend the launch, and the Russian state space corporation, Roscosmos, will take the unusual step of live-streaming the launch, as NASA usually does.

Coming home from the ISS

Soyuz MS-08 landss near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan in 2018

Image source: NASA/Bill Ingalls

In the middle of April, a return for some ISS crew members is on the calendar. Expected to land aboard a Soyuz capsule are presumably virus-free Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir from the U.S, and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka. The capsule will come down in the Kazhak desert, a type of landing that in normal times requires a large number of recovery personnel to retrieve returning crew. NASA has not yet announced plans to modify this cohort of rescuers.

Earth to Elon

ISS crew inside SpaceDragon capsule

ISS crew inside SpaceDragon capsule on March 9

Image source: NASA.gov

Perhaps the most worrying upcoming mission is the one planned in cooperation with SpaceX and currently scheduled for May. So far, things are proceeding as planned, though SpaceX founder Elon Musk last week sent an alarming email to employees. In it he downplayed the seriousness of coronavirus, arguing that more people die in car crashes. His commentary raises concerns regarding whether or not SpaceX can be relied on to proceed with the requisite level of caution.

The mission is an important one. It's a key step in NASA's Commercial Crew Program, marking the first time a privately-funded vehicle would be transporting people to and from the ISS. SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule has already paid one visit to the space station, successfully docking on March 9 as shown in the photo above.

Resume countdown

NASA Response Framework

Image source: NASA.gov

As far as NASA's Earth-bound employees go, the agency has a four-stage classification system for how and where to work. The coronavirus response framework (above) covers Central Access, Health & Safety, Meetings & Events, and Travel.

So as of now, NASA's plans for the next three missions remain on-track, with modifications made where possible in response to COVID-19 challenges. Of course, things are changing almost daily, and NASA has made it clear that they plan to continually re-assess their mission plans as events warrant.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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