Coronavirus raises interest in remote spacecraft operations

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WASHINGTON — With the coronavirus pandemic limiting options for personnel to gather in mission control centers to operate spacecraft, some companies are turning to virtual approaches to maintain their spacecraft.

The European Space Agency announced March 24 it was putting four of its science missions into a “temporary standby” mode to reduce the number of controllers needed at its European Space Operations Centre. The agency also said March 26 it was taking social distancing measures at a separate control center for ESA’s Columbus module on the International Space Station as a preventative measure against the spread of COVID-19.

NASA has, so far, not made any similar announcements about the reduction in operations of its spacecraft missions because of the pandemic. The agency said March 20 that Mission Control for the ISS was maintaining normal operations with “a number of additional measures” in place since early March to reduce the risk of exposure. NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurcyzk said during an online town hall meeting March 25 the agency might consider curtailing operations of other missions “if things deteriorate further” but that there were no plans to do so at this time.

While government agencies often have specific security and other operational needs that require physical mission control centers, some companies, particularly those working on smallsats, are using the pandemic to examine how they can operate their spacecraft remotely.

“With current technology, there’s no technical reason to require operators to be within visual range of a satellite dish, or even in the same time zone,” said Marshall Culpepper, chief executive of Kubos, a company that develops both spacecraft flight software and a cloud-based mission control system.

Kubos announced March 25 that it was offering that mission control system, called Major Tom, free to companies affected by the pandemic for 90 days. It includes the major features, such as tracking, telemetry and commanding, needed for satellite operations.

Culpepper noted in a statement that Kubos has been “a 100% remote company” since its inception, and so is aware of the needs of security and reliability. “We realize that this is a shift for much of the aerospace industry, but the ability to remotely continue business as usual has quickly become a necessity,” he said.

Other companies have already adopted remote satellite operations. This includes Planet, which runs the largest remote sensing satellite system in the world, with about 150 satellites in orbit. The San Francisco-based company said that a stay-at-home order by local governments last week, later expanded to all of California, did not affect the company’s work.

“Staff members are working from home in full force, including the operational teams needed to maintain stable satellite operations,” the company said in a March 19 statement. “All spacecraft management systems are designed to be operated remotely, so our ability to provide imagery products and services to our customers will continue without interruption.”