NASA reschedules its astrophysics missions due to the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic

The coronavirus breakout continues to affect significant sectors of the economy of nations worldwide. For more than six months, countries grounded their flights, reduced international trade activities, and imposed restrictions on in-country movement, among other measures, to minimize the spread of the virus. Although the pandemic season brought the technological advancements in the space industry, such as SpaceX’s satellite and crewed spacecraft launch missions, NASA’s astrophysics missions are at risk of delay because of the global epidemic. The delay affects the space expedition missions at various stages, from planning and scheduling launch dates and location, development, and space equipment testing to conducting return-to-Earth missions. 

The Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee met on September 21 to discuss the way forward for NASA’s space activities, the pandemic’s effect on the schedules and mitigation measures, and new launch schedules. Paul Hertz, the director of the agency’s astrophysics division, said that NASA planned to inaugurate many massive and miniature launch missions. However, the recent global pandemic will cause delays in the development and deployment stages of the tasks. Hertz said that the agency needs more time to identify the extent of the coronavirus’s effect on NASA’s space missions scheduled. The agency still proceeds with all its development phase missions, but the stage efficiencies reduced due to the pandemic. Implementing safety measures such as social distancing and travel restrictions imposed to minimize the virus’s spread reduced the work rate. The impact of disruptions in NASA’s supply chain will take quite some time before noticing the ripple effect. 

Recently, NASA rescheduled the launch of its massive astrophysics mission due to the ongoing pandemic-related issues. The agency postponed the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope by seven months to late October 2021. Hertz said that NASA still proceeds with the revised schedule for the mission, even though the acoustic tests on the mission’s spacecraft are complete, and the vibration tests are underway. The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer spacecraft launch mission is the least affected. The Explorer-class IXPE mission’s launch date is September 2021, after rescheduling from May the same year. The pandemic led to the 3-month shutdown of the Marshall Space Flight Center, causing delays in spacecraft assembly. Hertz said that NASA plans to review the schedules in October 2020 and then release the IXPE launch mission’s official date. 

In summary, NASA officials continue to determine the pandemic’s impact on the agency’s launch missions in the development phase. Hertz said that the agency does not have a clear report on the extent of the delays. The development missions include NASA’s next-generation astrophysics mission, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, previously the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope.