Hubble is in safe mode. Science operations suspended

IN SPACE In this handout from the National Aeronautical Space Administration, the Hubble Space Telescope drifts through space in

The Hubble Space Telescope entered into safe mode after experiencing a gyroscope failure, NASA has revealed.

Astronaut's photo of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

Hubble has six gyroscopes it uses to point itself and keep itself steady for observations. Right now, only two of the three gyros are working properly: "Upon powering on the third enhanced gyro that had been held in reserve, analysis of spacecraft telemetry indicated that it was not performing at the level required for operations".

The telescope that exploded in 1990 and made significant astronomical discoveries, initially had six gyros, but some of them were phased out.

"Three of them were on and one was off", Sembach said.

NASA was quick to offer reassurance: "Hubble's instruments still are fully operational and are expected to produce excellent science for years to come", public affairs officer Felicia Chou wrote in an update on the NASA website.

"So we turned it on as planned and the gyro was not reading the rates the way it should", Sembach said.

Image    The Whirlpool Galaxy is one of the most famous images Hubble captured
Image The Whirlpool Galaxy is one of the most famous images Hubble captured

She explained that there are plans in place to deal with the eventuality of the HST dropping down to a one-gyro mode when two remained.

"Mission experts are taking steps to return Hubble to great science", the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said in a tweet. There is a third gyro that might be able to work, but last time NASA tested it there were some issues.

Hubble's success is due in no small part to five servicing missions flown by space shuttle crews, including an initial visit in 1993 to fix the telescope's flawed optics and the final visit in 2009 that replaced the gyros and provided additional upgrades. Besides redundancy, three functional gyroscopes also provide more flexibility in pointing, Sembach said. Even two doesn't present a crippling failure for the telescope.

"So things closer in in the solar system than, say, the orbit of Mars, that would be more hard", he said.

"That doesn't mean we can't see the whole sky at some time during the year, we can", Sembach said.

A Hubble image of NGC 6744, which has a prominent central region packed with old yellow stars.

While NASA says that reduced-gyro mode would have "relatively limited impact on the overall scientific capabilities", some astronomers are concerned that the reduced-gyro mode could adversely affect some types of observations, such as of solar system objects, that require the precision of three-gyro operations.

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