Six astronauts are safe from COVID-19 during their space travels. Their research might eventually yield lessons that save lives on earth.
There are six people who have a very different experience of social distancing from any of us on planet earth.
They are the six astronauts and cosmonauts — American and Russian — working on the International Space Station (ISS).
The space travellers may be vulnerable to radiation from solar flares, asteroid strikes and technical malfunctions that can jeopardise their lives in dozens of ways, but COVID-19 is not one of them. Which is good, because washing your hands in water is very difficult in zero gravity.
When U.S. astronauts Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan, along with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, arrived at the ISS last September, there was no such thing as COVID-19.
Three more crewmates — Chris Cassiday from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner from Roscosmos — joined them last week, after weeks in isolation at a Russian space facility.
Space images highlight environmental impact of COVID-19
As its name indicates, the ISS is an international creation, with contributions from 15 countries, and built by five space agencies: NASA, Roscosmos, ESA (European Space Agency), JAXA (Japan) and CSA (Canada). The crews are international, and the huge volume of research and science carried out on the ISS benefits all inhabitants of our blue planet.
Right now, the ISS is observing a changed planet earth. The effects of the new coronavirus can be seen from space.
Every 92 minutes since 1999, the space station has been orbiting the earth. Images from space show how decreases in human activity — industry, transportation and business — have cut pollution.
The astronauts have posted their own photographs of earth from space and messages reminding followers that earth “remains a pretty spectacular place” and to stay strong during the COVID-19 crisis. They have been offering tips for living happily in isolation. In space, the crew members have to exercise for two hours every day to combat the effects of zero gravity on their muscles and bones.
— Andrew Morgan (@AstroDrewMorgan) March 26, 2020
As the current residents of @Space_Station, @AstroDrewMorgan and I thought we’d share some of our strategies for living happily in isolation. Tip #1: Exercise is vital not only for physical health, but also to your mental well-being. Here’s how we do it on @Space_Station . . . pic.twitter.com/Dzyh5WYBBj — Jessica Meir (@Astro_Jessica) April 1, 2020
Other research on the ISS, directed at learning to live and work during long-duration space missions to the moon and in the longer term Mars, could be deployed on earth in the future.
Scientific discoveries, lessons born from space travel
Software called AMOS — Autonomous Medical Officer Support Software Demonstration — is being developed to allow astronauts to diagnose and treat health issues on a deep space mission without help from earth-based doctors. It could be a lifesaver in remote areas of our planet by helping isolated communities carry out complicated medical procedures.
Space travel may seem far from our daily concerns about COVID-19 on earth, but much of the cutting-edge science that has enabled human space flight and exploration has changed our daily lives.
A prime example is communications, which changed very quickly after the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. Underseas cables and telegraph wires, both 19th-century inventions, became outdated technology as satellite networks started carrying telecommunication signals, first analogue and now digital.
Your ability to read this post is made possible by satellite technology connecting the entire world to the internet.
An end to space travel means confronting COVID-19
Potential positive outcomes from the current crisis in our relationship with nature may be inspired partly by the images beamed back from spacecraft orbiting high above us.
On April 16, Meir, Morgan and Skripochka are set to climb into their Soyuz spacecraft to undock from the ISS ahead of a fiery re-entry through earth’s thin atmosphere to land on the steppes of Kazakhstan.
All three will be able to breathe in fresh air, now scented with spring flowers, and feel wind on their faces. They will be able to share tales of space walks, cutting-edge research and repairs carried out in zero gravity.
But for the time being, they won’t be able to hug their friends and families, for the COVID-19 pandemic means that is too risky — even for a space traveller.
Tira Shubart is a freelance journalist based in London. She has produced television news for several international broadcasters including BBC News, Frontline News Television, Canadian Broadcasting and Christian Science Monitor. She is an Ambassador for the Science Museum in London and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. Sadly she has not yet reported from space.