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SPIE Astro 2024: NASA releases first Hubble image taken in new ‘pointing’ mode

19 Jun 2024

Operations were adjusted on June 14th after weeks of shutdown due to gyroscope problem.

by Matthew Peach in Yokohama

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has taken its first new images since switching to an alternate operating mode that uses one gyroscope (gyro). The spacecraft returned to science operations on June 14th after being offline for several weeks due to an issue with one of its gyros, which help control and orient the telescope.

This new image features NGC 1546, a nearby galaxy in the constellation Dorado. The galaxy’s orientation gives a good view of dust lanes from slightly above and backlit by the galaxy’s core. This dust absorbs light from the core, reddening it and making the dust appear rusty-brown.

The core itself glows brightly in a yellowish light indicating an older population of stars. Several background galaxies also are visible, including an edge-on spiral just to the left of NGC 1546.

Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 captured the image as part of a joint observing program between Hubble and NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The program also uses data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, allowing scientists to obtain a highly detailed, multiwavelength view of how stars form and evolve.

The image represents one of the first observations taken with Hubble since transitioning to the new pointing mode, enabling more consistent science operations. The NASA team say they expect that “Hubble can do most of its science observations in this new mode”.

“Hubble’s new image of a spectacular galaxy demonstrates the full success of our new, more stable pointing mode for the telescope,” said Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, senior project scientist for Hubble at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We’re poised now for many years of discovery ahead, and we’ll be looking at everything from our solar system to exoplanets to distant galaxies. Hubble plays a powerful role in NASA’s astronomical toolkit.”

Problem – solution

Hubble went into safe mode on May 24th due to an ongoing issue with one of its gyros, which measure the telescope’s slew rates and are part of the system that determines and controls the direction the telescope is pointed. The gyro had been increasingly returning faulty readings over the previous six months, suspending science operations multiple times.

This problem led the Hubble team to transition from a three-gyro operating mode to observing with only one gyro, enabling more consistent science observations and keeping another operational gyro available for future use. The agency discussed this transition in detail during a media teleconference on June 4th.

The team will continue monitoring the problematic gyro to see if it stabilizes and can be used again in the future. Although there are some minor limitations to observing in one-gyro mode, Hubble can continue doing most of its science observations. Further refinements to optimize operations are anticipated as the team gains more experience with the one-gyro mode.

NASA successfully transitioned Hubble operations on Friday June 14th. “The telescope and its instruments are stable and functioning normally,” the agency stated. Launched in 1990, Hubble has been observing the universe for more than three decades, recently celebrating its 34th anniversary.

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