Science

Hubble in 'safe mode' after technical snag

Hubble in 'safe mode' after technical snag”

While optimistic the problem can be resolved, he said Hubble can operate in near-normal fashion with just one gyroscope if worse comes to worse, although it would be more hard to track fast-moving targets.

Gyroscopes are needed to keep the 340-mile-high (540-kilometer-high) Hubble pointed in the right direction during observations. "At any given time, Hubble needs three of its six gyroscopes operating to ensure optimal efficiency", NASA says.

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.

The telescope is now operating on two of these enhanced gyros.

Hubble's success is due in no small part to five servicing missions flown by space shuttle crews, including an initial visit in 1993 to fix the telescope's flawed optics and the final visit in 2009 that replaced the gyros and provided additional upgrades.

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

Named after astronomer Edwin P. Hubble, the foremost American astronomer of the 20th century, the sophisticated optical observatory was placed into orbit about 600 kilometers (370 miles) above Earth by the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery on April 25, 1990. After rumors of mission downtime began circulating on Twitter, Dr. Rachel Osten of the Hubble team confirmed that something is wrong with the telescope's gyroscopes, which it uses for orientation.

"We'll work through the issues and be back", she promised.

Only two of those enhanced gyros are now running. 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.

Hubble's pseudo-successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, was supposed to already be up and running for years by this point, but Northrop Grumman's inability to do the job it's being paid billions of dollars to do has caused over a decade's worth of delays.

Osten described the current situation as "not really scary". That issue is keeping the spacecraft from resuming normal operations using three gyros.

While the telescope is not expected to be at risk of being permanently out of order, two of the four gyroscopes used to direct the telescope towards its targets in the sky have failed.



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