The Safest Place to Hide From the Coronavirus: Space?

The COVID-19 pandemic is worsening by the day and has now spread all over the world with more than 190,000 reported cases. In times like these, it may seem like the virus is inescapable, but there's one place where it most likely will not reach: the International Space Station (ISS).

The space station—which orbits the Earth at an altitude of around 250 miles—is jointly operated by the space agencies of the U.S., Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada. The Russian space agency Roscosmos leads the preparation for launches of Soyuz, the only spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to and from the station. But how does the ISS program keep crew members safe from potentially dangerous pathogens?

Before launching astronauts to the ISS, great care is already taken to prevent the crew from bringing potentially dangerous viruses and pathogens on board with them, so the novel coronavirus outbreak is not currently having much of an impact on safety procedures.

"Prior to launching to the International Space Station, the crew is quarantined and observed for any potential symptoms and tested," Luis Zea, a researcher from BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Newsweek. "This serves as a great filter."

NASA says it applies these quarantine measures to all of its astronauts before they are sent to the space station in the Soyuz capsule—which is launched from Kazakhstan.

"NASA takes steps to prevent the crew from bringing illnesses like the cold or flu to the International Space Station," Courtney Beasley, a spokesperson for the space agency, told Newsweek. "All of our crew have to stay in quarantine for two weeks before they launch. This makes sure that they aren't sick, or incubating an illness, when they get to the International Space Station and is called 'health stabilization.' It's an important part of protecting crew health."

But the protective measures don't stop there. According to Beasley, the ISS Program also has "very effective" processes in place to prevent disease-causing pathogens from being transported to the station via cargo missions.

"Currently, items that go to Station are cleaned but not necessarily 'sterilized'—which is something done for probes going to other planetary bodies to ensure we are not contaminating them with Earth cells or organisms," Zea said. Cleaning and sterilization are related but no the same thing."

"Items that go up to Station are thoroughly cleaned and sometimes, depending on the item itself, may be sterilized. However, a stringent requirement for sterilization exists for spacecraft that will land on other celestial bodies to ensure that, in the future when we 'sniff' more molecules indicative of potential life, we are not sniffing something that a previous spacecraft brought into that planet. In the case of the ISS, microbes travel with the crew, like it or not. In fact, a human has more bacterial cells in and on their body than their own cells, so it doesn't matter where we go, bacteria will accompany us," he said.

Taken together, these quarantine and cleaning measures make it very unlikely that disease-causing pathogens will infect astronauts onboard the ISS, even in the context of the latest outbreak, according to Zea.

ISS, International Space Station
A view of the International Space Station. NASA

"I would say that, regarding coronavirus, the ISS is probably one of the safest places to be at this point," he said. "This comes from the fact that the novel coronavirus can only survive for short periods of time on surfaces and an infected person would likely be screened and diagnosed during the quarantine period astronauts go through prior to launch."

"NASA and our international partners on ISS have made great investments on the Space Station and are very cautious to ensure the safety of the crew and Station. For example, when payload developers such as where I work, BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado Boulder, send hardware or an experiment to Station, we must demonstrate via tests results etcetera, that the crew and Station will be safe at all times," he said. "I think NASA has done a really good job in protecting astronauts and the Space Station."

Nevertheless, all astronauts undergo medical emergency training and maintain regular contact with a team of doctors on the ground who closely monitor their health. And in the event that a medical emergency does occur, the crew have processes in place to deal with the situation.

"There are always enough 'lifeboats' [Russian Soyuz spacecraft] docked to the ISS to ensure all of the crew could promptly evacuate should there be a need to do so," Zea said. "There are protocols in place for what to do should an astronaut fall ill on Station, which includes them boarding a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and returning to Earth, landing in Kazakhstan."