Sat 2020 show floor
There was little foot traffic at the Satellite 2020 exhibit hall near the end of the day March 11. Conference organizers cancelled events scheduled for March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

WASHINGTON — Satellite 2020, one of the largest space industry conferences of the year, ended a day early March 11, part of a growing number of events affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

In an email to conference registrants, Access Intelligence, which runs the conference, said it was cancelling conference events that had been scheduled for March 12, the last day of the event. That included a half-day of conference sessions and the exhibit hall.

That announcement came about two hours after the D.C. Health Department issued a recommendation calling for the postponement or cancellation of “mass gatherings” of more than 1,000 people. Shortly thereafter, Events D.C., which operates the Washington Convention Center, announced it would shut down the convention center through the end of the month.

Even before the decision to end Satellite 2020 early, it was clear the coronavirus outbreak had taken its toll. While organizers published no specific figures on attendance, anecdotal observations suggested turnout was much lower than in past years, with reports of lightly attended conference sessions and a quiet exhibit hall floor.

A number of speakers also cancelled, some just days in advance and often without updates from the conference. For example, a March 11 presentation by Chris Kemp, chief executive of small launch vehicle developer Astra, was cancelled about 10 minutes after its scheduled start when conference staff said they didn’t know where he was. Kemp later tweeted that he had informed organizers two days earlier he had decided not to attend because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Many other space-related conferences and meetings have been postponed or cancelled because of the epidemic. The American Astronautical Society announced March 10 it was postponing its annual Goddard Memorial Symposium in suburban Washington March 17–19 because of the growing number of COVID-19 cases reported in the area. The same day, the National Space Club announced it was postponing its Goddard Memorial Dinner March 20 in Washington for the same reason. Neither organization has set new dates for their events.

Smaller events have also been affected. The Universities Space Research Association said March 10 it was cancelling a half-day symposium on smallsats in Washington scheduled for March 26. NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office announced March 11 it had cancelled a March 18 meeting of its Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing.

Cancellations are taking place for events outside the United States as well. The ConnectTechAsia technology conference in Singapore, which includes sessions on satellite communications, has been rescheduled from June 9–11 to September 29–October 1. Cabsat 2020, a satellite communications conference devoted to the Middle East and Africa, has rescheduled its Dubai event from March 31–April 2 to October 26–28. The United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has cancelled the meeting of its legal subcommittee in Vienna that was scheduled for March 23–April 3.

In some cases, meetings, particularly by advisory committees, have changed from in-person events to virtual ones. The NASA Advisory Council’s science committee was scheduled to meet in person at NASA Headquarters March 12–13, but changed to a teleconference because of COVID-19. The National Academies’ Space Studies Board announced March 11 that it was cancelling the plenary session and public events associated with its Space Science Week March 31–April 2 in Washington. However, several of its committees that were scheduled to meet then will do so via teleconference.

Two major events remain on for the coming weeks, at least for now. The GEOINT 2020 Symposium, scheduled for April 26–29 in Tampa, is on schedule, the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation said March 10. Two exhibitors had cancelled so far, organizers said, and it was delaying by a week a shipping deadline for exhibitors “allow additional time for possible changes to GEOINT 2020.”

The Space Foundation also says the 36th Space Symposium remains on schedule for March 30–April 2 in Colorado Springs. In its last update, published March 4, it said that it was working with law enforcement, military and public health agencies regarding the feasibility of holding the event as planned. “The Space Foundation team is constantly monitoring all of these sources and will always make decisions that ensure the safety, security and success of everyone who is part of the Space Symposium,” it stated.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said March 11 that he recommended that the elderly and those with health problems avoid “large-scale community gatherings.” He said there was no immediate plan to ban large public gatherings, but would do so if the coronavirus outbreak spreads.

The World Health Organization (WHO) formally declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic March 11, meaning an epidemic with large-scale spread worldwide. It has now tracked more than 118,000 cases and nearly 4,300 deaths worldwide.

“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of WHO, said in March 11 remarks. “We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.”

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...