Earth’s Biggest Telescopes Reopen After Months of COVID Closures

After more than six months of COVID-related closures, observational astronomy is largely getting back to work.

Many of the world’s biggest telescopes have reopened their domes in recent weeks, returning their gazes to the heavens for the first time since the pandemic forced a global shutdown of observational astronomy in March. Other major telescopes expect to reopen soon. 

This wave of reopenings was buoyed by declining COVID-19 cases in Chile, especially in the Atacama Desert, a region home to many world-class observatories. U.S. officials who manage telescopes in Hawaii and Arizona say they’re also beginning to resume operations, largely thanks to significant changes in their workflows. 

If major observatories continue to come back online — and remain open — it will end an unprecedented dark era in astronomy. After all, even during World War II, America’s observatories kept a close eye on the skies. 

Astronomy in Quarantine 

Earlier this year, an Astronomy magazine analysis showed that over 100 of Earth’s largest telescopes temporarily shuttered their doors closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And by late March, observational astronomy had almost completely shutdown. 

The closures reveal a little-realized truth about modern astronomy. Even in 2020, most observatories are not fully automated. 

Telescopes have grown dramatically larger and more complex in recent decades. They’ve also been pushed to more remote locations, farther and farther from civilization’s expanding light pollution. Basic tasks like swapping the instruments and cleaning the mirrors on these behemoths can require a small village of engineers, technicians, observers, medics, cooks, groundskeepers, and more.

In Chile, where many of the world’s biggest observatories are now located, the telescopes are so far away from cities that employees can’t just commute to the mountain each night. They have to live on campus part-time. Even the astronomers using the instruments typically travel to the observatories during their awarded observing nights. 

This reality forced observatories to shut down in the early days of the pandemic. There was no way to abide by social distancing rules and effectively run the telescopes. In interviews back in March, observatory directors said they expected telescopes to be offline for at least three to six months. And that’s largely how the pandemic played out for them.

A number of observatories did manage to change their workflows enough to feel safe reopening during the summer. And in recent weeks, many of the remaining observatories have likewise reopened. 

The only telescopes little impacted were the small, survey telescopes that run robotically, or with minimal support. These scan the skies for transient objects — the field’s term for unexpected and brief astronomical objects and events. 

For example, the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona never stopped searching for asteroids. And astronomers kept the Las Cumbres Observatory network of robotic telescopes hunting for both supernovae and space rocks. Hopefully, that was enough to avoid any major gaps in the observational record. 

What Was Missed 

Luckily for the field, those survey telescopes didn’t pick up any once-in-a-lifetime objects that would leave astronomers agonizing over what might have been.

“I’m sure we’ve missed a few things,” says John S. Mulchaey, director of the Carnegie Observatories, which runs some of the world’s largest and most historically important telescopes. “But for most of astronomy, you don’t miss that much. For those of us studying galaxies in the distant universe, they’re gonna be there next year. They’re gonna look the same.” 

Mulchaey says he did ponder how tragic it would have been if Betelgeuse went supernova. Early in the year, astronomers were mystified by the behavior of the dying red supergiant star in the constellation Orion. 

“That doesn’t seem likely, but we haven’t had a visible supernova in our galaxy in 400 years or something,” he says.

Early on, astronomers were also worried about their ability to detect potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroids. And new asteroid detections did decline initially, according to Kelly Fast, NASA’s program manager for Near-Earth Object Observations. However, as smaller observatories found ways to reopen, those detections eventually started going back up. 

“Most stuff that would have been done this year can be done next year,” Mulchaey says. “It means it takes an extra year to get to the answer, but that’s not that bad in the scheme of things.”

Telescopes Restart 

In Chile, the past month has seen telescopes restart at observatories across the country, including Las Campanas, Paranal, Cerro Pachon, and Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Other major instruments like the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment, the Gemini South telescope, and Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope have also resumed their operations. Below is a brief summary of the statuses of other notable observatories.

  • Construction has restarted at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, formerly known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a massive, next-generation instrument that will image the entire visible sky every night. 

  • The Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile, or ALMA, has begun working toward reopening. Before the shutdown, astronomers used ALMA’s 66 radio telescopes to help discover phosphine gas in the atmosphere in Venus, which could be evidence of alien life. The finding is controversial though, and researchers could be eager for a second look. However, the array is so complex that it could be months before ALMA is fully back online. 

  • Meanwhile, Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, has started working to get its telescopes observing again. A major new project there called the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument saw first light last fall and researchers are eager to get it operational again. Other major telescopes in the United States opened in May and June. The relatively low number of COVID-19 cases in Hawaii also helped instruments like the Gemini North telescope get back to work.

  • In Antarctica, Earth’s only coronavirus-free continent, upgrades to the South Pole Telescope (SPT) have been postponed as fewer people are deploying to the continent. But SPT’s observing schedule has continued uninterrupted. “There has been a very strict protocol, limiting deployments to only essential personnel and with very strict quarantine rules,” says the University of Chicago’s John Kovac.

  • La Silla Observatory in Chile, home to a number of European Southern Observatory instruments, still hasn’t restarted science operations. 

Although not an observational observatory, LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, was forced to shut down its observing run a month early due to COVID-19. LIGO was planned to be offline for upgrades until 2022, but the pandemic is causing delays that could extend the process even longer. Processing the data from the last observing run is also taking longer than expected. 

“There are delays due to supply chain issues, changes in how vendors work, and teams learning to work in a COVID-safe way,” says LIGO spokesperson Patrick Brady. They likely won’t know until next year whether the pandemic has postponed LIGO’s ability to tune back into gravitational waves again.

Not the Same

Even as major observatories continue to come back online, many won’t be operating at 100 percent for the foreseeable future.

Large telescopes often have their instruments changed multiple times a night as they start new observing runs. But observatory directors say that changing instruments just won’t be possible in many cases now, as they’ve had to learn to work with dramatically reduced staff. Sometimes, they even have to find ways for one person to do tasks that would usually take an entire team.

Astronomers no longer physically travel to the telescopes from during their observing nights, either. And public tours have also been canceled, robbing observatories of vital revenue and access to potential donors. 

Maintenance has also been delayed. Large telescope mirrors often stretch more than a dozen feet across and sit exposed to the outdoors all night long, gathering dust. That means observatories have to regularly clean and recoat their mirrors, or else they’ll gradually lose their light-gathering abilities.

“One aspect that has suffered at the [Hobby-Eberly Telescope] and other large telescopes is that our mirror cleaning and segment re-aluminization are way behind schedule,” says Steven Janowiecki, an astronomer at the McDonald Observatory who serves as the observatory’s science operations manager. “Those processes require people to be in close proximity and have been significantly reduced since March. That will have long term impacts on our light-collecting ability — perhaps 5 to 15 percent — but we’ll still be observing.”

So, although the observational abilities of major telescopes around the world might remain slightly dimmed in the short term, astronomers and engineers are working hard to get Earth’s observatories fully back in the game.

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Cautious optimism in Melbourne CBD as cafes and restaurants reopen

“The doors are open, the coffee’s flowing. It’s a positive day, it’s a good day.”

Pellegrini’s did not bother staying open for takeaway during stage four restrictions, and Mr Malaspina found the empty city “so disheartening”.

James Fraser and his wife were glad to find a cafe on Wednesday.Credit:Joe Armao

“Our beautiful city of marvellous Melbourne, it was just like a ghost town … We’re in the people industry. We miss the people, we miss the contact. When you come here and the streets are empty, it’s really hard,” he said.

“It’s nice to get that enthusiasm back, and we get that with the customers coming in today. They come in and they clap and they, ‘Yay!’ It’s just so lovely.”

Cafe and shop owners were still getting their businesses together after Premier Daniel Andrews this week announced retail and hospitality could reopen to customers.

James Fraser was trying to find a meal with his wife after discovering that Brunetti cafe in Myer would not open until Friday.

Outdoor dining tables have popped up on Bourke Street outside the Village Centre Arcade.

Outdoor dining tables have popped up on Bourke Street outside the Village Centre Arcade.Credit:Joe Armao

“Then we’ve done the rounds, down the Block Arcade, down this avenue, down that street … This is about the 13th place we’ve tried,” he said when finally seated at a cafe on Block Place.

He was hoping for some scrambled eggs and then a haircut now the city has reopened.

“It’s about bloody time,” Mr Fraser said. “My wife, she was crying because she knows the city from when it was busy. It’s dreadful what’s happened.”

Joanna Brewer, owner of Issus cafe on city laneway Centre Place, felt alive for the first time in eight months.

At The Quarter on Degraves Street, staff didn't know what to expect on Wednesday.

At The Quarter on Degraves Street, staff didn’t know what to expect on Wednesday.Credit:Joe Armao

“The feeling, it’s hard to explain it,” she said, moving between queuing customers.

“People have actually come into the city. The vibe is outstanding … It feels like we’ve got some of the atmosphere back that Melbourne is so well known for. I feel like we’re getting there, everyone is really happy.”

Only the owners of The Quarter cafe on Degraves Street were working front of house on Wednesday, because Tony Roussos didn’t know what to expect from Melbourne’s first day out of lockdown.

But he barely had a moment to talk while making coffees and greeting customers who cherished the chance to dine in Melbourne’s laneways.

There was no shortage of customers in the city on Wednesday.

There was no shortage of customers in the city on Wednesday.Credit:Joe Armao

“The first two tables I served were drinking champagne, celebrating,” Mr Roussos said.

“We’re glad to be back in the capacity that we’re back. But we still have a lot of hard work ahead of us. It’s a small milestone, but really, the hard work is rebuilding. That’s where the challenge is going to be, while people are still working from home.”

Jungle Juice Bar owner Annabelle Sheppard said it felt busier than the aftermath of Melbourne’s first lockdown, which ended in May.

Customers seemed to feel safer, more confident (and more desperate), though she worries how long it will take for office workers to return to the CBD.

“I think I’ve been a little surprised. There’s more people than we expected, and more than last time [lockdown ended],” she said.

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TAB outlets to re-open in Melbourne after COVI-19 restrictions ease

Victorians have another new reason to celebrate with the TAB announcing its agencies will re-open for business in metropolitan Melbourne from Wednesday.

The easing of COVID-19 restrictions announced by the Victorian government has come just in time for Melbourne Cup week which kicks off with Derby Day on Saturday.

Punters will also be able to bet at pub and club TABs in Melbourne.

Punters in TABs will be able to bet early on the Melbourne Cup on the tote from Sunday to help ease demand on raceday.

COVID-safe measures will be implemented across TAB outlets including:

– COVID marshals on duty at agencies on key days

– Frequent cleaning of agencies and surfaces

– Hand sanitising stations installed

– Capacity limit signage, COVID-safe signage

– Floor decals showing 1.5m spacing

– QR codes to allow electronic access to form and popular markets on customers’ own devices

Metropolitan Melbourne has been in lockdown since July but Premier Dan Andrews eased restrictions on Monday and there have now been two consecutive days with no new coronavirus cases recorded.

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Victoria’s coronavirus restrictions set Melbourne’s pubs, restaurants and shops on a 30-hour race to reopen

Daniel Andrews was still speaking at his press conference when the phones started ringing at the Grand Hotel in Warrandyte, in Melbourne’s outer north-east.

“I’ve taken four phone calls [for bookings] while I was watching it,” pub manager Peter Appleby said.

During that much-anticipated press conference, the Premier announced that pubs, restaurants and cafes could reopen from Wednesday.

It means Mr Appleby can finally get back to serving beers after his pub, a local gathering place, stood shut for months.

“To stand behind the bar and pull a beer and chat to our loyal regulars who have supported us through these last seven months, I can’t wait — it is just going to be a special day,” he said.

“The town will be right behind us.”

But he wished businesses had been given more notice.

“A 30-odd hour turnaround time to get stock delivered and the place cleaned and ready to go that is a bit disappointing — it is so soon,” he said.

And there will be limits on how many patrons he can host at once. All venues in Melbourne will be subject to a 20-person cap indoors, with no more than 10 people in a single indoor space, and no more than one person for every 4 square metres.

Before the pandemic, Mr Appleby’s pub was able to host 700 people inside.

“Twenty [people indoors] is not viable for us, but we will open because it is just a week until indoor capacity moves to 40 people,” he said.

Outdoors, venues will be restricted to one person per 2 square metres, with a maximum of 50 patrons.

Mr Appleby is hoping the State Government moves to a straight density rule, rather than a hard cap on numbers, to allow bigger venues to seat more people with social distancing.

Dave Makin says hospitality businesses are keen to open in anyway possible, after months of severe restrictions.(ABC News: Kyle Harley)

‘At this stage we are pretty happy to take anything’

Hawthorn cafe owner Dave Makin said the Premier’s announcement was exciting for his staff.

He said it was unlikely his business, Axil Coffee Roasters, would reopen then because of the tight timeframe.

It’s instead aiming for a Thursday reopening.

Mr Makin also has concerns about the capacity limits.

“We have basically been closed since the middle of March so we are excited to be reopening, but the 20 [person limit] is deceptive as it is two spaces of 10 people, maximum, per space,” he said.

He said that limit wouldn’t be financially viable on a wet day when outdoor seating wasn’t possible.

“But at this stage we are pretty happy to take anything in hospitality.”

‘It’s been a long time coming’ says relieved retailer

Tiffany Zerafa runs Sticky Fingers Children’s Boutique at Niddrie, in Melbourne’s outer north-west.

Her business has been operating with click-and-collect sales, but that has been just a small fraction of her usual trade.

“The financial stress has been huge and it’s going to take a long time before business is back on track,” she said.

A woman stands in a store with children's clothes behind her.
Tiffany Zerafa says she is relieved to be opening her children’s clothing store again.(ABC News: Billy Draper)

It’s not the only stress Ms Zerafa and her staff have been dealing with.

“I’ve got three staff at the moment and it’s hit us all pretty hard,” she said.

Now she just wants to get back to business.

“Now that we have some routine happening with kids back at school and normal shop hours, we can just get on with living again.”

State’s reunification ‘can’t come quick enough’

Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Paul Guerra said there was a “sense of optimism” in the business community after the announcement.

He said the fact the so-called “ring of steel” separating Melbourne and regional Victoria would be dismantled in two weeks was critical to help inject much-needed cash into regional economies.

“The news that we will become one Victoria again from 8 November will give comfort to so many Victorians and that date can’t come quick enough,” he said.

Mr Guerra said the State Government needed to trust businesses to operate in a COVID-safe way, just as the public trusted the Government’s health system to respond to outbreaks.

Big retailers said their sector was ready to operate in a COVID-safe way, with careful physical distancing and rigorous cleaning protocols.

The Large Format Retailers Association, which represents stores like Harvey Norman, Bunnings and Spotlight, said many stores were already set up on a scale that would make social distancing straightforward, while other modes of purchasing adopted during the lockdown were likely to stay an option.

Tourism industry breathes a sigh of relief

The Victorian Tourism Industry Council, which had been urging the Government to lay down a clear date for the removal of the border between Melbourne and regional Victoria for weeks, said today’s announcement was a “watershed moment”.

CEO Felicia Mariani said the news that the “ring of steel” and 25-kilometre radius rule would end from November 9 was what her industry had waited months to hear.

“The state’s tourism industry is breathing a sigh of relief today, now that we have a clear date for when the people of greater Melbourne will be free to travel to regional Victoria,” she said.

“Bringing Melbourne back to life is an essential ingredient in the recipe to getting our state on the pathway to a COVID-normal future.

“Today, the Victorian Government has taken those first steps that are so desperately needed to allow us to start the pathway to recovery.”






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Tasmanian borders set to reopen to low-risk COVID-19 states

Kate Murray’s Launceston hotel is starting to take bookings from interstate visitors.

Ms Murray, who opened the boutique Florance Hotel with her husband Toby Florance in 2018, said this year’s coronavirus border closure came after a busy summer period.

She is looking forward to welcoming interstate visitors again.

“Even just a few more bookings every week makes a big difference,” she said.

People from South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and the territories can enter Tasmania from Monday without having to quarantine.

New South Wales is expected to be included on November 2.

Ms Murray said she was receiving one or two bookings a day from interstate.

“Most of the bookings are coming from new South Wales … I know that quite a few are going bushwalking and going up to do mountain biking,” she said.

At the other end of the scale, Federal Group, which operates big players like Wrest Point, Country Club in Launceston and Saffire on the east coast, said interstate bookings were slowly starting to return at all its properties.

“Tasmania’s key visitor markets are New South Wales and Victoria and travel from these destinations has been extremely uncertain,” Federal’s tourism general manager Matt Casey said.

Luxury tour guide Kim Dudson says interstate bookings are starting to trickle in.(ABC News: Loretta Lohberger)

“We expect the decision to open Tasmania’s border to visitors from New South Wales from November 2 should lead to a pick-up in bookings.”

Kim Dudson who develops high-end, private tours for international and interstate visitors, is keen to get back to work.

For the past few weeks she has been getting one or two interstate inquiries a week with most people planning to travel in December.

“I’m seeing green shoots and people are so enthusiastic to come down here, I’m really excited,” she said.

Young and old to benefit from reopening

The hospitality and tourism sectors have been hit hard by the border closure.

Dr Mala Raghavan Senior Lecturer in Macroeconomics Tasmanian School of Business & Economics
Dr Mala Raghavan says opening the borders will help younger people in particular.(Supplied; Dr Mala Raghavan)

University of Tasmania economist Dr Mala Raghaven said with the COVID-19 situation stabilised, slowly opening the borders was the next phase.

“We have to start somewhere, we can’t stay in this cocoon for long,” Dr Raghaven said.

She said it was important to protect older people from the risk of the virus, but it was also important for young people to be able to get back to work.

“This young vibrant group, if we keep them locked down for too long, it’s not good for their mental development, for their human capital and the loss of human capital … so it’s good to slowly get these people back into business activities,” she said.

“That’s important for the long term prospect of the state.”

View of granite hills through a window
Bookings are slowly returning to resorts like Federal Group’s Saffire Freycinet.(ABC News: Laura Beavis)

Aged care prepped for open borders

The capacity of the state’s aged care homes to cope with a potential COVID-19 outbreak has been one of the reasons given for keeping Tasmania closed to travellers.

As part of its safe border strategy released this month, the Tasmanian Government established an aged care emergency operations centre to help aged care homes prepare for and respond to risks.

Blonde haired woman stands in a foyer next to a plant
Southern Cross Care’s Robyn Boyd says the aged care sector has learnt from Victoria’s experience and won’t be making the same mistakes.(ABC News: Loretta Lohberger)

“As approved providers we’re coming together and we’re supporting each other in the event we do see a second wave,” Southern Cross Care chief executive Robyn Boyd said.

“We talk about surge workforce, how we can support each other … and I think it’s really important and empowering to learn from Victoria and making sure that we don’t make the same mistakes,” she said.

“It’s important that we don’t overdo it too quickly in terms of restricting access, et cetera, but we’re ready to act in the event we need to.”

Southern Cross Care is Tasmania’s largest aged care provider.

At the entrance to each of its homes, all visitors are checked for symptoms and that they have been vaccinated against influenza.

Residents and employees are also regularly checked for symptoms.

“Our residents aren’t concerned about the borders opening, they’re very confident with what we’ve done in managing outbreak prevention and the work we’re doing in ensuring their safety and wellbeing,” Ms Boyd said.

Pinning hopes on Christmas reunion

One of those residents, Jenny Askey, is hoping Victorians will be able to travel to Tasmania without needing to quarantine before Christmas.

Elderly woman wearing glasses
Aged care resident Jenny Askey is looking forward to meeting her latest grandchild.(ABC News)

Ms Askey’s daughter and her daughter’s partner live in Victoria and are keen to visit with their three children, including Ms Askey’s five-month-old grandson.

“It’ll be wonderful to see them all, especially the new addition,” Ms Askey said.

“We have lots of phone calls and video chats … you do miss that, seeing them,” she said.

Another big provider, Uniting AgeWell, said it was expecting many happy family reunions over the coming months and its safe visiting guidelines and processes would support visits from interstate relatives.

“Uniting AgeWell’s safe visiting guidelines have been in place for many months and will continue until it is safe to ease those restrictions,” a spokeswoman said.

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Why Did Colleges Reopen During the Pandemic?

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Victoria records one COVID-19 case, Daniel Andrews criticises Josh Frydenberg, NSW-Vic border could reopen within a month, Australia death toll at 905

Local golfers have splintered into two groups in response: those who believe the 24 hectares can be shared and those who think any change will undermine the nine-hole course.

Bill Jennings, who launched the We Play Golf at Northcote website, believes sharing the course is a slippery slope towards closing it to golfers.

Bill Jennings wants Northcote Golf Course to stay with golfers.Credit:Jason South

He said the public course was one of the few affordable ways for new and diverse players to discover golf.

“I think that golf’s not a very offensive sport when you’re talking about a public golf course. I understand the stereotypes about elite, entitled privileged white people characterised by people like Donald Trump and Sam Newman. That is not us. You know, people who play down there are not those people.”


Mr Jennings wants to pause the debate to see how public space is used once hospitality reopens after the COVID-19 lockdown.

Melbourne residents are still barred from congregating in homes or hospitality venues until at least November 2.

Ruth Liston, from Northcote, has been using the park about three times a week during lockdown and was gutted that golf was resuming.

“It’s been an absolute lifesaver for us during lockdown for walks, for picnics for socially distancing with friends, for seeing people and feeling like part of a community, for connecting with nature,” Ms Liston said.

“Losing that on Wednesday is devastating. Because even though some of the restrictions have lifted … life’s not going to be normal for a long time.”

Read the full story here.

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Peter Gutwein says Tasmania plans to reopen to NSW as of November 2


October 19, 2020 14:55:30

Tasmania will reopen its borders to travellers to and from New South Wales in the first week of November, subject to that state’s COVID-19-status remaining “positive”, Premier Peter Gutwein has announced.

Source: ABC News
Duration: 1min 32sec








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