NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) unveiled their joint coronavirus dashboard during a news conference on Thursday (June 25). The dashboard tracks not the respiratory disease itself, but consequences of the public health measures implemented in hopes of slowing its spread, like closing borders and mandating social distancing tactics.
“On Earth we are connected,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said during the news conference. “[The dashboard] demonstrates the key capability that is important for all these global types of issues.”
In the six months since COVID-19 burst onto the scene, the world has dramatically changed. First China, then country after country hastened, in particular, to reduce the number of people any one resident came into contact with in an attempt to break the infection chain. Governments instituted stay-at-home measures and companies scrambled to switch employees to remote work where possible.
All of those measures have come with rippling consequences that have in many cases piled on top of the health crisis itself. “The last couple of months were truly challenging,” Josef Aschbacher, director of ESA’s Earth-observation programs, said during the news conference. “The COVID-19 pandemic in fact has shown to us very drastically how vulnerable today’s societies are.”
And space agencies realized that their Earth-observing satellites could see these activities. The new dashboard includes, for example, data showing dips in pollutant emissions as people drive less, changing patterns of artificial lights at night, traffic jams at closed borders, and even changes in water quality from reduced industry impacts.
“As this pandemic spread across the globe, scientists began to see from space how patterns of human activities were changing and how those changes affected the environment,” Zurbuchen said.
The new dashboard currently displays this sort of global data, drawing on at least 17 active satellites operated by the three agencies, according to NASA personnel. The scientists behind the project are already evaluating additional data that could be integrated in the coming months, such as soil moisture observations that track the impact on agriculture, Zurbuchen said. The dashboard may also evolve beyond the current epidemic, officials said during the news conference.
“We are already contemplating whether we should limit it to the period of the COVID-19 crisis,” Aschbacher said. “We have an obligation to offer our excellent space data to all of the people on the planet. there are many other problems on the horizon which also need global concerted action.”