Hubble Space Telescope has gyro problems again

At 34, things don't seem to work how they used to

Updated The Hubble Space Telescope has celebrated the 34th anniversary of its launch in the traditional way: by entering safe mode due to an ongoing gyroscope issue.

The NASA / ESA observatory is living on borrowed time, having closed 2023 with a gyro glitch that meant science operations had to be suspended. The problem was resolved, but it appears that issues have returned for the wayward gyro, and the spacecraft was once again dropped into safe mode while engineers search for a fix.

The Hubble and its instruments remain healthy, but the team had to suspend science operations.

There are six gyroscopes onboard Hubble, although only three remain operational. The six were installed during the fifth and final Space Shuttle servicing mission in 2009, and although the Hubble could operate on just one gyro if needs be, three are required for maximum efficiency.

The gyros, crucial components of the Hubble's operation, play a vital role in determining the telescope's direction and measuring the spacecraft's turn rate.

After more than three decades of operation, the Hubble has far exceeded expectations. However, this latest incident highlights that all good things must come to an end, and without a Space Shuttle to service the telescope, replacing its faulty parts will be challenging.

Even with a full complement of working gyroscopes, the Hubble is still due to fall back to Earth during the 2030s. NASA had planned to retrieve it using a Space Shuttle, but with all the remaining Shuttles now gathering dust in museums, the Hubble's only hope is for a mission that could boost the spacecraft into a higher orbit.

A device was attached to the Hubble during the last servicing mission to permit the telescope to be grappled for boost, repair, or safe disposal. However, despite some brave words on the matter from the usual suspects – we're looking at you, SpaceX – no firm schedules have been set.

The problematic gyroscope indicates that a decision on the future of the Hubble space telescope will be needed sooner rather than later. With a healthy set of instruments, the observatory is anticipated to continue its record of groundbreaking discoveries, now complemented by the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope.

However, those instruments will count for nothing if scientists cannot point the Hubble where they need to. ®

Updated on 1 May to add:

Good news! NASA has confirmed that the Hubble is once again running on all three gyros and science operations have resumed. There's life in the old dog yet.

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