“I don’t know how anyone can see the Hubble ‘Deep Field’ image and not feel like something else is going about its business out there,” writes Tracy K. Smith, U.S. poet laureate, whose father was an engineer on the Hubble Space Telescope.
Two of NASA’s premier space telescopes, Hubble and Kepler, are currently out of commission — sad news for scientists who depend on data from NASA’s aging fleet. Anxiety spread through the astronomical community this weekend as NASA announced that the Hubble Space Telescope, orbiting Earth since 1990, was in safe mode — but NASA confirmed in a statement released yesterday (Oct. 8) that the agency expected the instrument to be back at work soon.
“Hubble’s instruments still are fully operational and are expected to produce excellent science for years to come,” NASA reports. Hubble went into temporary safe mode on Friday after detecting a mechanical failure with one of its six gyroscopes — the spinning instruments that steer the telescope and keep it pointed steadily toward its targets.
“The gyro that failed had been exhibiting end-of-life behavior for approximately a year, and its failure was not unexpected; two other gyros of the same type had already failed,” NASA officials said in the statement. “The remaining three gyros available for use are technically enhanced and therefore expected to have significantly longer operational lives.”
Hubble has carried a total of six gyroscopes — three standard and three enhanced — since astronauts installed them during a spacewalk in 2009, typically using three at once. The dead gyroscope is the third standard one to fail.
But then the backup gyro didn’t kick into action, creating a “very stressful weekend” for staff at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Space Telescope Science Institute, deputy mission head Rachel Osten said on Twitter. All astronomy work is on hold while researchers attempt to figure out what is wrong.
Hubble will revert to reduced gyro mode, using only one of its two remaining gyroscopes at a time if they aren’t able to get the “problematic” instrument up and running. This mode would limit where Hubble can point but prolong the overall mission: “It buys lots of extra observing time,” Osten said, “which the astro community wants desperately.”
NASA had hopes that Hubble would stay in the sky long enough to observe in tandem with the James Webb Space Telescope, the gold-plated-mirror Goliath built to capture the oldest light in the universe. But repeated budget problems and human failures have delayed the Webb telescope’s launch by more than a decade reports the Washington Post. It’s not expected to launch until at least 2021.
NASA’s current operations contract for Hubble ends that year, though optimists say the spacecraft could last into the 2030s.
Meanwhile, Kepler, the prolific alien planet hunter that has detected some 4,000 new planets since it launched in 2009, has been in sleep mode since Sept. 26 to preserve dwindling fuel before its next data dump that just might have signs of Earth’s twin buried within.
Image montage showing the Maunakea Observatories, Kepler Space Telescope, and night sky with K2 Fields and discovered planetary systems (dots) overlaid. An international team of scientists discovered more than 100 planets based on images from Kepler operating in the ‘K2 Mission’. The planet image on the right is an artist’s impression of a representative planet. Image credit: Karen Teramura (UHIfA) based on night sky image of the ecliptic plane by Miloslav Druckmüller and Shadia Habbal, and Kepler Telescope and planet images by NASA.
While we wait for the launch of the JWST, both Hubble and Kepler telescopes are nearing the ends of storied lives. Several of NASA’s top space telescopes are more than 10 years old. The Chandra X-ray Observatory, Spitzer Space Telescope, Swift Observatory and Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have all passed the planned duration of their original missions by at least five years.
The end for Kepler is even nearer, having operated for more than double the length of its original 3½-year mission — functioning even after the second of four reaction wheels that keep it oriented was lost in 2013. It’s been expected to run out of fuel sometime this year, but zero gravity makes it hard to measure how is left in the spacecraft’s tank.
“It’s like trying to decide when to gas up your car. Do you stop now? Or try to make it to the next station?” Kepler system engineer Charlie Sobeck wrote in a blog post this year. “In our case, there is no next station, so we want to stop collecting data while we’re still comfortable that we can aim the spacecraft to bring it back to Earth.”
Image top of page: Hubble Deep Field of The Bubble Nebula
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