China emissions map
NASA and ESA used satellite data to measure the drop in pollution in China earlier this year because of the coronavirus outbreak there. The agencies are seeking proposals to either study the pandemic's effects or support response efforts. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA and the European Space Agency are separately soliciting proposals to either do research related to the coronavirus pandemic or to help provide relief services.

ESA announced April 1 it was seeking proposals for a project called “Space in response to COVID-19 outbreak,” in cooperation with the Italian government. ESA is asking companies in Europe to submit proposals that can use space assets, like communications, navigation and Earth observation satellites, to support healthcare or education efforts in Italy, which has been hard-hit by the pandemic.

“We believe that, in this emergency, space, now more than ever, has to be put at the service of everyone,” said Giorgio Saccoccia, president of the Italian Space Agency, in an ESA statement about the project.

Selected companies will have access to 2.5 million euros ($2.73 million) in funding as well as free satellite capacity as part of this project, which could expand to other European countries. Companies are required to submit an initial “outline proposal” by April 20 for review by ESA. Within a week of that deadline, ESA will pick companies to submit a complete proposal, due by May 14.

“We are keen to support European companies in developing and deploying their best ideas to respond to the current crisis, evidencing the contribution that space can bring in these circumstances,” Magali Vaissiere, ESA’s director of telecommunications, said in the statement.

NASA’s Earth sciences division is soliciting proposals for “rapid response and novel research” related to the coronavirus pandemic. According to an amended solicitation released March 27, the agency is seeking proposals “making innovative use of NASA satellite data to address regional-to-global environmental, economic, and/or societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The agency said it wants proposals that make use of existing satellite data, including those from NASA’s international partners as well as those purchased from companies through its Commercial Smallsat Data Acquisition Program. The agency is interested in those proposals that study how changes in activities caused by the pandemic have affected the Earth’s environment, as well as those that would “demonstrate how NASA and related remote sensing data can characterize impacts of decisions taken or can inform public and private decision making.”

“We are going to make awards really fast,” said Sandra Cauffman, acting director of NASA’s Earth sciences division, during a March 31 online meeting of the National Academies’ Committee on Earth Sciences and Applications from Space. Awards will be made within 10 days of submission of proposals, she said.

Of particular interest, she said, is “before and after” data from areas affected by the pandemic, resulting in curtailed travel and industrial activities and thus reduced emissions. That was echoed by the members of the committee, who said data collected now represented a unique opportunity to better understand the effects of human activities on the Earth’s environment.

NASA also announced April 1 that it was seeking ideas from its employees on how the agency can contribute to pandemic response efforts. Through an internal “NASA@Work” crowdsourcing platform, employees are invited to offer ideas on how NASA can offer novel approaches to development of personal protective equipment and ventilators, as well as forecasting the spread of the disease and its effect on society. The agency is also open to other ideas, from telemedicine applications to applying lessons from long-duration spaceflight to the pandemic response.

“I’ve heard from employees across the agency who want to help the nation combat COVID-19. These comments exemplify the prevailing, can-do spirit of NASA people and our willingness to take on any challenge,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “As the nation comes together to confront this crisis, we must look at every opportunity for NASA to lend a hand and increase our contribution to America’s response.”

The use of the internal crowdsourcing was one of the approaches Bridenstine and other agency officials said NASA would take in response to the pandemic during an online town hall meeting March 25. Other roles included offering NASA supercomputers for researchers working on COVID-19 treatments and vaccines and participating in interagency meetings to coordinate the federal government’s response.

One frequently cited potential contribution for NASA is producing, or assisting in the production of, ventilators given the agency’s expertise in life support systems. That included a discussion during the March 31 meeting of the National Academies’ Committee on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space after a presentation by Julie Robinson, ISS chief scientist at NASA.

“It is an active area,” she said, noting it came up during a NASA coronavirus task force meeting the day before. “Definitely we have contributions to make and we’re making sure our expert employees are able to work on these projects in this really urgent time.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...