Some consequences of the pandemic are observed by satellites in orbit around our planet: fewer visitors at certain sites or less pollution in areas concerned by restrictions.
After the first alerts in China at the end of 2019, the world was confronted with a new type of coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2 which causes the disease named COVID-19. On 11 March 2020, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation, described the current situation as a pandemic. Since it is not the purpose of this article to give medical information on this coronavirus or the precautions to be taken, we urge you to consult this official French Government page if that is what you are seeking. Here, we will take a closer look at the effects of SARS-CoV-2 on our planet as observed by satellites.
CONSTRUCTIONS AND DESERTED VENUES
Satellites’ imaging capacity makes it possible to observe not only the construction of buildings but also the number of people gathered in places. Thus, Airbus Pléiades satellites monitored the rapid construction of a hospital in Wuhan to respond to the health emergency in this part of China.
Equally impressive, the satellite views of places deserted because of health-related restrictions.
It must be remembered, however that some images may be published with no appropriate context. For example, these two views of the Space Mountain attraction at Tokyo Disneyland could have implied that the Japanese avoided the Park for fear of catching the coronavirus, but an important detail was essential: Tokyo Disneyland had decided to close it to the public, which explains the lack of visitors!
In some countries, health measures for curbing the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus entailed asking people to stay at home, thereby reducing or stopping much industrial activity. There, too, satellites were able to attest to the changes induced.
NASA published an article showing a major drop in the concentration of nitrogen dioxide over China.
Nitrogen dioxide is an atmospheric pollutant linked to industrial activity. It should be noted that the data used by the American agency come from the TROPOMI instrument of ESA’s Sentinel-5P satellite placed in orbit in the context of the European Union Copernicus programme.
Another European satellite is taking similar measurements. These data come from IASI (Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer) instruments devised by the French Space Agency CNES and installed on EUMETSAT (European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites) MetOp satellites.
IASI is an infrared sounding interferometer for detecting several gases in the atmosphere, including carbon monoxide. In a CNRS publication of 5 March, researcher from the French laboratory LATMOS (Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales) observed a drop in this gas resulting from lockdowns in China and Italy. They explain why the main sources of pollutants were related to vehicular traffic and road maintenance, and the regions affected and their vicinity display better air quality over previous years.
The drop in pollution linked to health measures is also illustrated by the ESA video below made using data from the above-mentioned Sentinel-5P.
Within 10 days, towards the end (in March) a drop in nitrogen dioxide concentration over Northern Italy following the lockdown decided by the country’s authorities.
EPIDEMICS AND THE SPACE industry
In addition to extreme human loss, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has also had considerable impact on activities in Space. Several colloquia and meetings have been either cut short, or cancelled in order to respect health regulations. When ESA and Roscosmos announced yesterday, 12 March, that the ExoMars Mars mission postponed until 2022, both agencies recognised that the final phase of ExoMars activities are compromised by the general aggravation of the epidemiological situation in European countries. But, this was not the main reason.
We can also wonder if the Space Industry can help in dealing with future epidemics. It is not a matter of inspiring groundless hope, but of research on how satellite data will help better forecast certain epidemics, since they can sometimes detect environmental conditions (like temperature and humidity) that promote the dissemination of a specific virus or microbe. Despite this 2017 CNES article’s inherent interest, it does not concern COVID-19).
The Space Industry has also contributed enormously to the development of telemedicine, since it provides for follow-up of astronauts in Space by physicians on the ground. In response to the coronavirus crisis, remote consultation by phone has been suggested to avoid overburdening emergency rooms and doctors’ offices. Telemedicine may have a broader role in the future, becoming a useful adjunct in the management and even prevention of epidemics. Obviously, the authorities and experts concerned will be the ones to decide.