A technical fault has led NASA to suspend science operations for the hardworking Hubble Space Telescope. The craft entered safe mode on Friday when one of its gyroscopes failed, and while the problem may or may not be fixable, Hubble is expected to continue science operations regardless.
During normal operation, Hubble uses three gyros to point and steady the telescope, but one of these failed just after 6pm EDT (10pm GMT) on Friday October 5. As a result, the craft automatically entered safe mode, which allows ground control to try to resolve the problem and resume regular operation.
The breakdown wasn't exactly a surprise – NASA says the gyro had been showing signs of wearing out for about a year or so. As a backup Hubble has six of them installed, but there's a problem with this as well: two had already suffered the same fate, and when the agency went to fire up the last remaining gyro, it refused to work properly.
NASA says its staff are currently working to analyze the fault and determine whether it can be restored to full operation, but even if it can't there's still hope for the future of Hubble. NASA says the craft can continue to work in a "reduced-gyro" mode that only requires the one gyroscope. That means it won't be able to scan as much of the sky, but since there's nothing wrong with the star-gazing instruments Hubble can still investigate the smaller patch it's looking at.
A similar fate befell Kepler in 2013. Rather than scrap operations when two of its reaction wheels malfunctioned, NASA came up with a workaround that allowed it to stay stable with just two remaining wheels. In the years since, K2 – as the second phase of the mission was named – has shown that it's still able to detect exoplanets and make other observations.
It remains to be seen whether Hubble will enter a similar phase of its working life, or if NASA will be able to restore it to full working order. Either way, the space telescope still has some life in it yet.
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