COVID-19 Closes Earth’s Largest Telescopes

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Social Distancing COVID-19 Countermeasures Mean Closure For the World’s Biggest Telescopes.

According to Astronomy magazine, over 100 of the biggest research telescopes on Earth sit dormant and inoperative right now. In the past few weeks, observatories around the world heeded best practices and shut down their facilities. In fact, NASA did the same thing in mid-March, ordering all non-essential personnel to telecommute. Then, shortly after, they closed all but mission-critical facilities. All of this in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that threw the world into a tailspin over the past month or so. 

There is at least one big telescope still operating, though…

It’s no secret that if you want a good, scientific look at the cosmos from Earth you need a few things. First, you need a telescope—the bigger the better. Next, you need a clear night sky. Finally, you need as little light pollution as possible. Therefore, it makes sense that the best observatories on the planet are in remote, often very high-altitude places where the skies tend to be clear. The Atacama desert in Chile or the top of a Hawaiian volcano comes to mind. And of course, both of those places have big, important observatories. Unfortunately, they’re closed at the moment. But where else on Earth might astronomers frolic together in close quarters and carry on their scientific work unfazed by COVID-19?

Antarctica. Yep. That’s pretty much it. The sun set on the southern end of the world last month, and it won’t be back until September. So it’s plenty dark, and they have a really big telescope. More importantly, however, the last flight left the continent in mid-February, prior to the outbreak, so all 42 “winterovers” needn’t worry about social distancing. They can still work and operate in close quarters. 

Keeping the Candle Burning

Such work is incredibly important, especially with nearly all of the other large telescopes on Earth shut down. For example, “If everybody in the world stops observing, then we have a gap in our data that you can’t recover,” says astronomer Steven Janowiecki of the McDonald Observatory in Texas. “This will be a period that we in the astronomy community have no data on what happened.”

Of course, we have satellite telescopes in space, and astronomers using them can still theoretically access that data from a telecommuting situation. But observers working with terrestrial telescopes need to ride out COVID-19 the way they might ride out a series of storms that block the sky. Unfortunately for astronomy as a whole, one storm system only affects one telescope. A pandemic affects them all. 

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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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