Wed, Oct 10, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Hubble sidelined by a serious pointing failure

AP, CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida

The Hubble Space Telescope has been sidelined by a serious pointing problem.

NASA on Monday announced that one of Hubble’s gyroscopes failed on Friday last week.

While that was expected — that particular gyro was expected to go some time this year — the surprise 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.

The 28-year-old telescope has had trouble with its gyroscopes before. Spacewalking shuttle astronauts replaced all six in 2009 during the final servicing mission. Three of them are now considered unusable.

“I think Hubble’s in good hands right now, I really do,” said Kenneth Sembach, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates Hubble. “The fact that we’re having some gyro problems, that’s kind of a long tradition with the observatory.”

Gyroscopes are needed to keep the Hubble pointed in the right direction during observations. Precise pointing is crucial: Astronomers use the telescope to peer deep into the cosmos, revealing faraway solar systems, as well as galaxies and black holes. Just last week, astronomers said they might have discovered the first moon outside our solar system, with Hubble’s help.

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

Two of Hubble’s gyroscopes are working fine, Sembach said, adding that the last one was in reserve; it was turned off a few years ago after exhibiting some “funny behavior,” even though it was getting the job done.

That is the one that flight controllers turned on as a backup; as of Monday, it still was not working as expected.

Everyone wants to be careful in attempting repairs, Sembach said.

“Obviously, we don’t want to make things worse,” he added.

Hubble normally uses three gyroscopes to function, but could get by with one or two, something it has done before, but that leaves little room for additional breakdowns.

Besides redundancy, three functional gyroscopes also provide more flexibility in pointing, Sembach said.

“We’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m sure Hubble has many years of good science ahead of it.”

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