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Coronavirus: NASA satellites flown from staff homes during lockdown

Satellite operators are flying NASA spacecraft from their homes during the coronavirus pandemic to help prevent transmissions.

Instead of the traditional mission operation centre - a room filled with control panels and screens - command for two of NASA's smaller satellites has gone digital to tackle COVID-19 .

NASA's Hyper-Angular Rainbow Polarimeter (HARP) CubeSat and its Compact Infrared Radiometer in Space (CIRiS) instrument are being commanded from staff members' homes, due to the coronavirus social distancing guidelines.

Both satellites are operated by the Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL), based at Utah State University. SDL built HARP, which measures just 10cm wide, 10cm high, and 30cm long.

The NASA-funded CubeSat collects vital information about clouds and aerosols, tiny particles in the atmosphere that help cloud droplets and ice particles to form

It was designed by Professor Vanderlei Martins at the University of Maryland, after he decided to photograph the bright white clouds floating by while flying across the Pacific Ocean a few years ago.

"On a whim, he took out a polariser, similar to a sunglasses lens, and rotated it in front of his camera as he snapped photos," NASA says. "The result? 'I saw rainbows in the clouds,' Martins said."

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The measurements the satellite takes will help NASA and scientists around the world understand how aerosol particles impact the weather, climate and air quality.

The CIRiS satellite was built by Ball Aerospace, and is collecting, processing and calibrating infrared images of Earth.

A little larger than HARP - about the size of a backpack with a mass of approximately 25lbs - it is testing a small, space-based infrared instrument.

This instrument collects images to be used for a variety of scientific studies, including studies of cloud properties and mapping of soil moisture for measuring local drought conditions.

"We have worked closely with NASA and the principal investigators for HARP and CIRiS to ensure their mission objectives are being met while our employees are practising recommended COVID-19 mitigation methods," said Asal Naseri, SDL's small satellite technologies branch head.

"The health and safety of our employees is a top priority for SDL, and we are actively pursuing opportunities for them to work from home during this extraordinary time while maintaining commitments to our partners."