Gyroscope malfunction forces Hubble Space Telescopes into safe mode

Jan Cross
October 12, 2018

But, over the years, some of these gyroscopes have failed and stopped functioning properly. 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.

Hubble was built with six gyroscopes created to keep the telescope pointed the same way for long periods of time.

Before Friday, Hubble had four working gyroscopes, also called "gyros". A series of space missions were needed to fix technical problems - affecting the gyroscopes among other things - since Hubble's launch in 1990. Hubble's instruments are expected to produce excellent science for years to come, NASA said.

It had six new gyros installed during Servicing Mission-4 in 2009.

If the new fault fails to be restored, the telescope will be left with two gyroscopes, which will limit its functionality. The telescope needs three working gyroscopes to "ensure optimal efficiency", mission team members have written, and the failure brings that number down to two (if the "problematic" one that had been off can't be brought back online). "The noise in the system now with that gyro is such that it can not be used to point Hubble".

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'It's true. Very stressful weekend, ' Rachel Osten, Hubble's deputy mission head at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said on Twitter.

Osten also noted that the team has had a "very stressful weekend" and that the Hubble is now "in safe mode while we figure out what to do".

Even if that particular gyroscope stays out of order, Hubble can get back to work - while it works best with three gyroscopes, the telescope can run on just one without losing too much scientific power. Assuming the team can rescue the malfunctioning gyroscope, Hubble will resume operations in its standard three-gyro configuration. "Which the Astro community wants desperately", Osten tweeted in response.

While NASA says that reduced-gyro mode would have "relatively limited impact on the overall scientific capabilities", some astronomers are concerned that the reduced-gyro mode could adversely affect some types of observations, such as of solar system objects, that require the precision of three-gyro operations.

The telescope is known to be nearing the end of its active life, with the James Webb Space Telescope - now scheduled for launch no earlier than 2021 - slated to be its successor.

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