Hubble Good for Another Decade Despite Gyro Woes

Hubble Good for Another Decade Despite Gyro Woes

NASA said today the beloved Hubble Space Telescope will continue making discoveries into the mid-2030s despite failing gyroscopes. Of the six gyros that enable the telescope to point at specific regions of the universe, only two remain reliable. They have decided to use just one and keep the second as a backup, which will slow observations, but keep it viable for another decade.

Launched in 1990, Hubble is setting records for longevity largely because it was designed to be serviced by humans on space shuttle missions who could replace major components and make other repairs. A joint NASA-ESA project, Hubble just celebrated its 34th birthday

Five shuttle servicing missions between 1993 and 2009 made Hubble what it is today, especially because it was launched with a defective mirror. The first servicing mission installed a corrective lens that enable Hubble to collect stunning images that mesmerize the public and make scientific discoveries that have revolutionized our understanding of the universe.

Hubble sees the universe in the visible wavelengths and the adjacent infrared and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum, turning to look here and there using gyroscopes. Hubble has six of them and three are typically used at one time.

Astronauts on the last shuttle servicing mission replaced all six. Three were standard and three were an improved design that mitigates corrosion. All three of standard gyroscopes now have failed and Hubble has been operating using the other three.

NASA astronaut Michael Good, positioned on a foot restraint on the end of Space Shuttle Atlantis’ Remote Manipulator System, and NASA astronaut Mike Massimino (lower right, partially out of the frame), participate in the fourth spacewalk on STS-125, the final shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009. Photo Credit: NASA

One of them, “gyro 3,” has been problematic all along according to Hubble Project Manager Patrick Crouse of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who briefed reporters this afternoon. In recent months it’s become more and more of a problem, repeatedly putting the telescope into safe mode because it incorrectly thinks it has reached the maximum amount of movement, or slewing.

It happened again on May 24 and NASA has decided this time to take the gyro offline. They will switch to operations using only one gyro while keeping the other in reserve. Consequently it will take longer to move from one position to another and limit the amount of sky Hubble can see at any one time. Crouse said they will lose 12 percent of the telescope’s efficiency. They expect to resume operations in mid-June.

In celebration of the 34th anniversary of the launch of NASA’s legendary Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers took a snapshot of the Little Dumbbell Nebula, also known as Messier 76, or M76, located 3,400 light-years away in the northern circumpolar constellation Perseus. The name ‘Little Dumbbell’ comes from its shape that is a two-lobed structure of colorful, mottled, glowing gases resembling a balloon that’s been pinched around a middle waist. Like an inflating balloon, the lobes are expanding into space from a dying star seen as a white dot in the center. Blistering ultraviolet radiation from the super-hot star is causing the gases to glow. The red color is from nitrogen, and blue is from oxygen. NASA, ESA, STScI.

Hubble’s orbit is naturally decaying due to atmospheric drag. Billionaire Jared Isaacman, who bought two SpaceX Crew Dragon missions to Earth orbit as part of his Polaris adventure, proposed docking with Hubble to boost its orbit.

After a joint feasibility study, NASA declined the offer. NASA Astrophysics Division Director Mark Clampin said today it posed too many risks and Hubble’s orbit is fine through the mid-2030s so a reboost isn’t necessary. Clampin cited the possibility of effluents from Dragon’s propulsion system contaminating the mirror as one of the risks.

Hubble is managed at Goddard Space Flight Center and operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, as is the James Webb Space Telescope launched in 2021 that studies the universe in the infrared.

NASA has another “great observatory” that observes in the X-ray part of the spectrum, Chandra, operated by the Center for Astrophysics|Harvard & Smithsonian. Launched in 1999, Chandra also is pretty old, though nine years younger than Hubble. Unlike Hubble, however, Chandra has not benefited from any servicing missions.

NASA’s FY2025 budget request proposes cuts both to Hubble and Chandra operations, though Chandra would be much more deeply affected.  Last year’s Fiscal Responsibility Act led to significant cuts in NASA’s science budget for FY2024 and FY2025 is similarly constrained. NASA is conducting a “mini Senior Review” of Hubble and Chandra to weigh their scientific return versus their operating costs.

Asked today about how NASA is looking at Hubble and Chandra, Clampin said only that budgets are tight and difficult choices must be made. The money to pay for other ongoing astrophysics missions like JWST, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope scheduled for launch in 2027, and initial work on a new Habitable Worlds Observatory has to come from somewhere. It certainly seems that NASA remains committed to Hubble, however, even if it means operating with a single gyro.

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