Hubble Space Telescope is Now in Safe Mode

Hubble Space Telescope is Now in Safe Mode

Hubble is in Trouble due to some problems in one of its gyros.

Hubble Space Telescope (HST), one of the largest and most versatile space telescope developed malfunctions on Friday, October 5. According to NASA, one of the gyros used to angle the telescope in specific directions showed anomalous behavior. That’s the reason why the phrase “Hubble in trouble” is being used frequently these days. Named after the astronomer Edwin Hubble, HST has proved to be a vital research tool for astronomers. Its giant 2-meter-wide mirror allows it to capture the most detailed pictures of space with significantly less background noise than the telescopes on Earth. This has led to many breakthroughs in science which include determining the rate at which the universe is expanding. It was launched in 1990 and is the only space telescope designed to be serviced in space. So far, the telescope has been serviced five times, the last time being in 2009.

Last Friday, this amazing space telescope went into a “safe mode” state after one of its three functioning gyros developed problems. HST has six gyros in total but three are needed for the telescope to work at peak efficiency. When the scientists tried to use a backup gyro, the telescope returned odd readings. Over the years, Hubble has lost three gyros in total so it may be time to install new ones after all. However, NASA assures the telescope can still function.

The official plan is to try to repair the backup gyro and if that fails, the telescope will be modified to work on a single gyro, so it can last till 2020, the estimated time by which its successor James Webb Telescope will be launched. Working on a single gyro will greatly reduce the telescope’s efficiency but will prolong its life. NASA officials talked about that in the following words:

“While reduced-gyro mode offers less sky coverage at any particular time, there is relatively limited impact on the overall scientific capabilities.”

Floating at 560 km above ground, Hubble Space Telescope was designed to work for 15 years. However, it has been gathering data for almost 28 years now. This isn’t the first time HST has shown malfunctions. NASA is keen on seeing the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Hubble Space Telescope work together before Hubble is finally retired. JWST was scheduled to launch this month but some technical issues in initial testing postponed its launch till 2020.

The breakdown of Hubble is inevitable as gyros are moving parts and will eventually wear out completely. Surprisingly, it isn’t the only space equipment which entered the safe mode. Chandra X-Ray observatory designed to detect different spectrums of light also entered safe mode. While it was designed to work for 5 years, the observatory has been operational since 1999. Chandra’s failure is more impactful than Hubble because Hubble views everything in visible light whereas Chandra is capable of X-ray imaging that allows it to view entities like black holes.

Chandra has backup gyros but it will not stop the degradation of the equipment. The main problem that the researchers are facing right now is that the HST can only be repaired by astronauts sent on to the telescope itself. Given the fact that the Space Shuttle Program has been shut down, it isn’t possible anymore. When asked “Why don’t you just repair the telescope?”, astronomer Helmut Jenkner of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore said:

“That we can’t do anymore, because there ain’t no shuttle.”

The Space Shuttle Program was shut down after the Columbia shuttle carrying the repair crew for Hubble disintegrated as it re-entered the atmosphere. Since then, Hubble’s servicing was canceled. However, in 2009 NASA restored the servicing mission as the repair crew was sent aboard the spacecraft ‘Atlantis’. On this mission, a new camera was installed on the telescope along with 6 gyros. The Hubble team predicts that their telescope will work through 2021 and may well work alongside JWST for a few years as well. The authorities at NASA issued an update on Hubble’s current situation by saying,

“Science operations with Hubble have been suspended while NASA investigates the anomaly. An Anomaly Review Board, including experts from the Hubble team and industry familiar with the design and performance of this type of gyro, is being formed to investigate this issue and develop the recovery plan. If the outcome of this investigation results in recovery of the malfunctioning gyro, Hubble will resume science operations in its standard three-gyro configuration.”

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