space jam

This is how NASA ground control stops spacecraft from crashing while working from home

It is like social distancing, but in space.


This week, ground control rooms at NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have emptied out as employees at the space agencies practice social distancing to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

Ground control is critical to space missions' success. They help keep ongoing missions, spacecraft, and satellites floating above us, and make sure they stay on course.

So with these vital teams away from their controls, who’s making sure these spacecraft don’t smash into each other in space?

Earlier this week, NASA released a statement strongly encouraging employees to work remotely in response to guidelines from the United States' Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Similarly, ESA has also directed most of its employees to work remotely this week, keeping only a small number of people in control rooms.

Between them, NASA and ESA controls more than 40 spacecraft in orbit around the Earth. These range from small satellites, to ongoing space-exploration missions like the International Space Station, to flying telescopes. This does not account for the thousands of other satellites and objects also in orbit around Earth.

That is a lot of objects...


On average, each space agency will have to perform around two collision-avoidance maneuvers every year for every one of these missions, according to ESA.

These delicate maneuvers require human intervention from Earth. Mission control crews send commands to operational spacecraft, flying them into a safe orbit, clear from other rogue satellites or debris. This ensures there are no space fender benders above Earth.

Who's going to be controlling spacecraft now?


Worth the risk

For a satellite in low-Earth orbit, hundreds of collision warnings are issued every week.

To determine what is truly risky and what is not, the mission's control team first eliminates those that pose no risk of collision from the list.

But if the probability of a collision remains above 1 in 10,000, then mission control needs to quickly design a collision avoidance maneuver and send those commands to the spacecraft.

“We consider the continued monitoring of any potential collisions, and performing maneuvers to avoid these, one of our highest priorities,” Holger Krag, head of space safety at ESA, said in a statement.

“We will be able to protect our spacecraft from collisions remotely, even in any much degraded situation with a minimum of personnel and equipment present on site.”

ESA mission control rooms will continue to monitor the flying spacecraft in orbit, and evaluate the potential risk of collision.

Debris distribution in orbit around Earth.


Should one of these require special intervention, then the personnel needed to do the job will be called in for it.

But if the space agency has to reduce the number of employees on-site further, then they may consider switching off the science-collecting instruments on spacecraft so that they can — hopefully — peacefully float on in a safe, stable orbit.

“Such a scenario could be maintained for quite some time, extending into many weeks or months, if necessary,” Paolo Ferri, Head of Mission Operations at ESA, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, NASA is planning for its future missions as scheduled.

“Currently, the coronavirus has not significantly affected NASA’s operations and work continues, such as preparations for the upcoming launches of the Mars Perseverance rover mission and NASA’s Commercial Crew flight test (SpaceX’s Demo2) to the International Space Station, and construction of our James Webb Space Telescope targeted for launch next year,” Stephen Cole, from NASA’s Office of Communications, tells Inverse in an email.

“As the coronavirus situation continues, we’ll make adjustments as appropriate," he says.

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