Coronavirus epidemic having limited effect so far on space industry

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Updated 7:30 p.m. Eastern March 4 with news of LPSC cancellation.

BROOMFIELD, Colo. — The ongoing coronavirus epidemic is having a limited but growing effect on the space industry, as some companies and organizations rethink plans for events.

In a brief interview here March 2 after a speech at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, NASA Administration Jim Bridenstine said the agency was taking a “day-by-day” approach to addressing the disease, and that any responses may vary from one field center to another depending on the locations of outbreaks.

“We’re taking it at this point day by day. We have 10 centers across the nation and every single one of them, as this continues to develop, is going to be affected differently,” he said.

He said NASA was following a “tiered approach” to the coronavirus, starting with guidance and direction from government officials, tailoring that as needed for various centers. “More than everything, we need people to understand that we care about them individually and that there’s a lot of guidance out there as far as what needs to be done” to minimize the risk of infection, he said.

NASA employees have been told that international travel should be restricted to “essential” activities only, but there has not yet been any restrictions on domestic travel. The agency hasn’t announced any other restrictions on upcoming meetings or other activities.

The European Space Agency has published its restrictions on access to its centers. People who have been in areas with major coronavirus outbreaks, including China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Iran and northern Italy need to have been out of those regions for at least two weeks before they can enter an ESA facility. Agency leaders “are currently assessing” whether upcoming meetings ESA is organizing will take place as scheduled.

“As soon as the virus reached Europe we defined clear measures for ESA to minimize its spread,” Jan Woerner, director general of ESA, wrote in a Feb. 28 blog post. “Due to the necessity for us to continue operating satellites, there are some limits to what we can do. Each and every one of us, though, must act responsibly to help counteract the coronavirus.”

The coronavirus disease, known formally as COVID-19, started in China in late 2019 and there are now more than 92,000 cases reported worldwide, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. More than 100 cases have been reported in the United States, with six deaths. Worldwide the disease has claimed more than 3,100 lives, mostly in China.

Concerns about the spread of coronavirus have led organizations in the United States, Europe and elsewhere to postpone or cancel major conferences, such as Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in late February and the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco scheduled for mid-March.

Organizers of the Satellite 2020 conference, scheduled to begin March 9 in Washington, said March 3 that they are going ahead with the event, one of the largest in the commercial satellite industry.

“The majority of Satellite’s exhibitors and attendees are based in the U.S. and there are currently no travel restrictions within the U.S., or to and from most international destinations. We don’t expect that to change prior to the show dates,” Lindsey Fuller, vice president of Access Intelligence, said in the emailed announcement. Fuller said a “select few” international participants will not be able to attend, but that it will not have “a material impact” on the event.

However, satellite operator SES announced March 4 that it would not participate in the conference with the exception of Chief Executive Steve Collar, who will attend “to honor his public commitments” such as speaking engagements. “In view of the deepening concerns around COVID-19 virus, SES has made the difficult decision to not send its employees to Satellite 2020 and its related events,” the company said.

The Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI), which holds the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in the Houston suburb of The Woodlands, Texas, announced March 4 that it was cancelling the conference, set to begin March 16. LPI previously said that the conference would take place as planned, but added it would make a final decision on holding the conference by March 6.

LPI said it made the decision to cancel LPSC after “a careful assessment of the risks as determined by the CDC and WHO; consultation with NASA [Planetary Science division] leadership; and consideration of community feedback.” It added that rescheduling the conference was not feasible, but that it would virtually hold some peripheral meetings associated with the conference, such as a NASA town hall and kickoff of the planetary science decadal survey.

The Space Foundation also said Feb. 28 it was moving ahead with the Space Symposium, scheduled to begin March 30 in Colorado Springs. The foundation said that state and local health officials have determined the risk of exposure to coronavirus is low in the area at this time. The organization reiterated March 4 that the symposium would still take place as scheduled.

However, events can change quickly. The American Physical Society (APS) announced Feb. 29 it was cancelling its annual March conference that was scheduled to begin March 2 in Denver. The notice of the cancellation came less than 36 hours before the first sessions of the event, the largest physics conference of the year, were scheduled to start, and some of the more than 10,000 attendees were either already in Denver or en route when APS announced its cancellation.

Kate Kirby, chief executive of APS, said in a statement that the organization made the last-minute decision to cancel the event “to avoid any transmission at our meeting.” Although there have yet to be any recorded coronavirus cases in Colorado, the conference attracts an audience from around the world, including with regions with higher incidences of the disease.