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Trouble for Hubble: gyro fails on space telescope

11 October 2018

On Friday, NASA's iconic Hubble Space Telescope, our window into the universe since 1990, went into a protective safe mode after one of its gyroscopes failed. "Hubble's instruments still are fully operational and are expected to produce excellent science for years to come".

Bottom line: The Hubble Space Telescope has been in safe mode since last Friday evening, following the failure of one of the gyros that helps stabilize it. NASA is analyzing the problem and hopes to resume operations soon.

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.

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The Space Telescope Science Institute's deputy mission head, Dr. Rachel Osten, said the first move "is to try to bring back the last gyro, which had been off, and is being problematic".

And the Kepler space telescope, which has discovered about 70 percent of the confirmed 3,800 exoplanets to date, is running so low on fuel that its handlers recently shut it off, to make sure it has enough propellant left to orient itself toward Earth and beam its latest data haul back to Earth next week. Engineers who work on Hubble say they are addressing the problem.

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. Analysis and testing on the backup gyro are ongoing to determine why it is not performing as expected. This mode puts the telescope into a stable configuration until ground control can correct the issue and return the mission to normal operation.

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IN SPACE - MAY 13: In this handout from NASA, the Hubble Space Telescope is grappled to Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-125 by the shuttle's Canadian-built remote manipulator system May 13, 2009 in Space.

NASA has convened an anomaly review board to investigate the issue with the enhanced gyro. Assuming the team can rescue the malfunctioning gyroscope, Hubble will resume operations in its standard three-gyro configuration. Sure, that means less sky coverage at a time. Its successor, the 6.5-metre James Webb Space Telescope, will not launch until 2021 at the earliest.

She explained that there are plans in place to deal with the eventuality of the HST dropping down to a one-gyro mode when two remained.

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Trouble for Hubble: gyro fails on space telescope