COVID-19 forces Earth’s largest telescopes to close

The alarm sounded at around 3 a.m. on April 3. An electrical malfunction had stalled the behemoth South Pole Telescope as it mapped radiation left over from the Big Bang. Astronomers Allen Foster and Geoffrey Chen crawled out of bed and got dressed to shield themselves from the –70 degree Fahrenheit temperatures outside. They then trekked a few thousand feet across the ice to restart the telescope.  

The Sun set weeks ago in Antarctica. Daylight won’t return for six months. And, yet, life at the bottom of the planet hasn’t changed much — even as the rest of the world has been turned upside-down. The last flight from the region left on Feb. 15, so there’s no need for social distancing. The 42 “winterovers” still work together. They still eat together. They still share the gym. They even play roller hockey most nights. 

And that’s why the South Pole Telescope is one of the last large observatories still monitoring the night sky.

An Astronomy magazine tally has found that more than 100 of Earth’s biggest research telescopes have closed in recent weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What started as a trickle of closures in February and early March has become an almost complete shutdown of observational astronomy. And the closures are unlikely to end soon.

Observatory directors say they could be offline for three to six months — or longer. In many cases, resuming operations will mean inventing new ways of working during a pandemic. And that might not be possible for some instruments that require teams of technicians to maintain and operate. As a result, new astronomical discoveries are expected to come to a crawl. 

“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.”

Yet these short-term losses aren’t astronomers’ main concern. 

They’re accustomed to losing telescope time to bad weather, and they’re just as concerned as everyone else about the risks of coronavirus to their loved ones. So, for now, all that most astronomers can do is sit at home and wait for the storm to clear. 

“If we have our first bright supernova in hundreds of years, that would be terrible,” says astronomer John Mulchaey, director of the Carnegie Observatories. “But except for really rare events like that, most of the science will be done next year. The universe is 13.7 billion years old. We can wait a few months.” 

The prospects get darker when considering the pandemic’s long-term impacts on astronomy. Experts are already worried that lingering damage to the global economy could derail plans for the next decade of cutting-edge astronomical research. 

“Yes, there will be a loss of data for six months or so, but the economic impact may be more substantial in the long run,” says Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. “It’s going to be hard to build new telescopes as millions of people are out of work. I suspect the largest impact will be the financial nuclear winter that we’re about to live through.”

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