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Hubble telescope stops collecting data after mechanical fault

Two astronauts replace gyroscopes on the Hubble telescope during an EVA in 1999. The Earth looms brightly below them.

Astronauts work on the Hubble Space Telescope during a 1999 mission to service its gyroscopes.Credit: JSC/NASA

The Hubble Space Telescope stopped collecting science data on 5 October, because of a problem with one of the gyroscopes that the observatory uses to orient itself on celestial targets. Mission controllers are investigating the problem and expect to have Hubble working again soon.

“Don’t worry, Hubble has many great years of science ahead,” says Kenneth Sembach, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, which operates Hubble.

But the glitch underscores that the 2.4-metre Hubble, perhaps the most iconic space observatory in history, will eventually die. NASA’s decision to retire its space shuttles in 2011 means that astronauts cannot service the 28-year-old observatory as they once did.

On their last servicing mission in May 2009, astronauts replaced all six of Hubble’s gyroscopes. Three of those were of a new design meant to last much longer than the previous designs. Two of the old design had failed before last week, when the third malfunctioned. When mission controllers went to switch on a gyroscope of the new design, it did not work as it was supposed to.

If that replacement cannot be made to operate properly, Hubble would be left with only two functional gyroscopes. In that case, the telescope would resume its work with just one gyroscope, NASA announced on 8 October. That would limit Hubble's ability to point at targets, requiring more complex scheduling.

Its successor, the 6.5-metre James Webb Space Telescope, will not launch until 2021 at the earliest.



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