The Hubble Telescope, one of the most important scientific instruments ever put into use, has been sidelined due to a mechanical problem, and if operators can’t get it up and running again, the nearly 30-year-old spacecraft’s mission may come to an inglorious end.
As BBC News reports, the telescope, deployed in 1990, uses six gyroscopes, but only three of them are needed to keep the spacecraft fully functional. Unfortunately, one by one the gyroscopes have failed, and last weekend, a fourth one went down, leaving the craft with only two operating gyroscopes.
Mission controllers put the craft into Safe Mode while they try to figure out what their next move will be.
In a tweet, Dr. Rachel Osten spoke of the stress she and her team are feeling right now.
“Very stressful weekend. Right now HST is in safe mode while we figure out what to do. Another gyro failed. First step is try to bring back the last gyro, which had been off, and is being problematic.”
So What Can Be Done About It?
Everything and nothing, as it turns out. For now, mission controllers seem to be operating on the same method you use when your WiFi is acting up and you unplug your router, plug it back in, and hope for the best. They’re letting the malfunctioning gyroscopes rest for a while, and hoping they’ll be functional when they’re turned on again.
The Hubble Space Telescope is taking a break https://t.co/i8ug6MFXOb— The New York Times (@nytimes) October 8, 2018
Failing that, mission controllers may have to rely on the craft having two, or even one, gyroscope for the remainder of its life. Astronomer Nial Tanvir says that the craft can function with one working gyroscope, just in a limited capacity.
“You can in principle, with relatively little impact, continue to observe with one gyro. It may place some limitations on which part of the sky you can look at at any one time, and take a little longer to move from one target to another… It’s not a catastrophe.”
However, Dr. Tanvir points out that the failing systems on the craft do seem to indicate that its useful life may be coming to an end.
Meanwhile, Hubble’s putative replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, has been nothing short of a debacle. Twenty years and $10 billion after it was announced, the craft seems no closer to being launched into space than it was when it was a sketch on a NASA envelope. The craft has been subject to repeated delays, cost overruns, and various human errors during its construction and is now tentatively scheduled for launch March 30, 2021.