Hubble in safe mode after gyro failure

Olive Hawkins
October 9, 2018

Astronauts on a space shuttle servicing mission in 2009 replaced all six of Hubble's gyroscopes, but NASA no longer has the option of sending a shuttle for repairs. Gyroscopes are needed to keep Hubble pointed in the right direction during observations. The failed gyro is the last of the older ones.

Now one of the remaining three isn't working as expected, leaving Hubble with just two working gyros and it needs at least three for optimal operations.

The gyroscopes allow the telescope, which has been in low Earth orbit since 1990, to sense rotation and stabilise itself. NASA Goddard and Space Telescope Science Institute scientists are attempting to turn another of the newer gyros back on, but it's acting squirrelly.

"The gyro that failed had been exhibiting end-of-life behavior for approximately a year, and its failure was not unexpected; two other gyros of the same type had already failed".

Though three gyroscopes are ideal, the telescope can be used on only one.

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The telescope could work with as few as one or two gyroscopes, although that leaves little room for additional breakdowns. "If the outcome of this investigation results in recovery of the malfunctioning gyro, Hubble will resume science operations in its standard three-gyro configuration", the agency stated. The current problem, though, is a reminder that, with the retirement of the shuttle, NASA now lacks a means to fix or upgrade Hubble.

Astronomers are anxiously awaiting the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for 2021, but until then Hubble remains the most powerful space telescope in the sky - and the best tool for peering deep into space. There isn't much difference between 2- and 1, and it buys lots of extra observing time.

But, while Osten shared on Twitter that it has been a "very stressful weekend", she also assured the general public that "we knew it was coming", and that this gyro actually lasted longer than the team had initially planned for. "We'll work through the issues and be back", Osten added in another tweet.

For now, Hubble's still the star of the show, so let's hope it can pull through.

Hubble has made numerous outstanding observations of the cosmos since it was deployed in 1990. It's "absolutely the plan" to operate Hubble as long as it can, perhaps until 2025 or later.

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