NASA Hubble Space Telescope grapples with new mechanical failure

Olive Hawkins
October 11, 2018

As a result, Hubble is in so-called safe mode with non-essential systems turned off.

The 28-year-old Hubble Space Telescope is temporarily out of service, due to the failure of one of its gyroscopic pointing devices, but scientists say they're working on a Plan B.

However, in the article issued by NASA this gyroscope has been exhibiting "end-of-life" behavior for a year, and the failure was no surprise, as two other gyros have also failed. The problem is that Hubble has only been operating with three of its gyroscopes up to now, the minimum needed for optimal functioning.

Last week, the Hubble telescope stood down from observing and put itself into "safe mode" after one of its gyroscopes, which keeps it aimed at objects of scientific interest in space, died. The team is now working on getting the misbehaving gyroscope to snap out of its funk, but if it can't manage to do that the spacecraft will be brought down to a one-gyroscope mode in order to preserve longevity. As per NASA the gyro that was unsuccessful last week had been manifesting end of life performance for a time span of a year and its collapse was not unanticipated.

After the recent mechanical failure, controllers have tried to switch to a different gyroscope, but that was found to be malfunctioning.

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Hopefully, Hubble can hold out until the launch of its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, in 2021. Hubble usually uses three gyros at a time for maximum efficiency, but can continue to make scientific observations with just one.

Hubble has carried a total of six gyroscopes - three standard and three enhanced - since astronauts installed them during a spacewalk in 2009, typically using three at once. That gyro, which had been powered down, is not "performing at the level required for operations", according to spacecraft telemetry after it was commanded to turn on.

In a series of tweets, Rachel Osten, deputy mission head for the Hubble Space Telescope at the Space Telescope Science Institute, confirmed the problem.

Scientists are now performing analyses and tests to determine what options are available to recover the gyro to operational performance. "NASA is working to resume science operations", NASA said in an official statement.

"Mission experts are taking steps to return Hubble to great science", the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said in a tweet.

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