The Hubble telescope will operate in a degraded mode

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Launched in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope is still in operation. But he begins to suffer from the pangs of age. On May 24, Hubble automatically entered safe mode, suspending its scientific operations, due to the malfunction of one of its three gyroscopes. The latter had already led to several consecutive pauses of the space telescope. On June 4, the American space agency therefore decided: Hubble will continue its observations, but with a single gyroscope instead of three.

A gyroscope that acts up

Hubble's gyroscopes measure the rotation speed of the telescope and are part of the system that precisely determines and controls its direction. During the telescope's last maintenance mission, in 2009, astronauts in Earth orbit repaired two faulty scientific instruments and installed two new ones. To extend Hubble's life, they replaced the batteries and all six gyroscopes.

Since then, the condition of the gyroscopes has gradually deteriorated, with only three being functional to date. The one that had a series of breakdowns, and which had put Hubble into safe mode at the end of May, was almost constantly saturated. Thus, it indicated that the rotation speed of the telescope was the maximum possible value, regardless of the actual rotation speed. Although engineers were able to reset the gyroscope electronics several times to normal values, the results were only temporary and the problem reappeared, notably at the end of May.

A degraded mode to continue scientific operations

So that scientific operations can continue, NASA is switching the telescope to a new operational mode: Hubble will operate with a single gyroscope, while keeping another available for future use.

With this degraded mode of operation, NASA expects some limitations. The telescope will need more time to rotate and lock onto a target, and will not have as much flexibility in where it can observe. It also won't be able to track moving objects if they are closer than Mars, although these are rare targets for Hubble. Nevertheless: this transition from three to one gyroscope will make it possible to continue observations with Hubble, which the space agency hopes to operate until the next decade.

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