Hubble Telescope Observations on Hold After Gyroscope Failure

After a gyroscope failed on the Hubble telescope last Friday, all science observations have been put on hold.

The Hubble Space Telescope is out of a commission due to a pointing system failure, according to an announcement by NASA made Monday that one of Hubble’s gyroscopes shut down.

However, NASA had expected that particular gyroscope to fail sometime this year, but the problem came when a backup did not kick in properly on Saturday.

As a result, Hubble remains in so-called safe mode, and all science observations are on hold.

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According to NASA mission controllers are working to restore the 28-year-old telescope, which orbits around 570 kilometres above the Earth. Gyroscopes are required to keep Hubble pointed in the right direction during observations.

Thus, Hubble remains in what is known as safe mode, and all science observations are currently on hold.

Hubble has been around for the past 28 years, so this is not the first time it has seen issues with its gyroscopes. In 2009, spacewalking shuttle astronauts replaced all six gyroscopes during the final servicing mission. But three out of those six are now unusable.

But Kenneth Sembach, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates Hubble said that he believes Hubble’s in good hands right now and gyro problems are kind of a long tradition with the observatory.

Gyroscopes are used to keep the 550-kilometre (340-mile-high) Hubble pointed in the right direction during observations. Precise pointing is vital because astronomers use the telescope to see deep into the cosmos, uncovering faraway solar systems in addition to galaxies and black holes. For example, last week, astronomers said they might have found the first exomoon, which is a moon outside our solar system and they used Hubble to do it.

Since its launch in 1990, Hubble has made over 1.3 million observations.

Moreover, Sembach added that two of Hubble’s gyroscopes are working fine. The last one was in reserve and was turned off a few years ago after exhibiting some strange behaviour, even though it was getting the job done, he said. That’s the one that flight controllers turned on Saturday as a backup, but as of today, it still isn’t working as it should.

Hubble typically uses three gyroscopes to operate but could get by with one or two, which it has done before. However, that leaves little room for any other breakdowns. Besides redundancy, three functional gyroscopes also offer more flexibility in pointing, according to Sembach.

However, Sembach is optimistic and believes everything will be repaired, and the Hubble telescope has many good years of science left.