It seems like NASA's unlucky summer is stretching well into autumn. Several of the space agency's missions have been dealing with problems over the last few months, with the Hubble Space Telescope going into safe mode just a week ago. Now it’s the turn of the Chandra, NASA’s X-ray telescope and one of the agency's Great Observatories.
At 9:55 am EDT on October 10, the telescope entered safe mode. In this configuration, all the critical hardware is swapped to backup units and the spacecraft moves so that its solar panels receive the maximum amount of sunlight. The transition to safe mode is reported as being impeccable and exactly what the observatory should do if there is a potential danger to the instruments. And in fact, all the scientific instruments are safe.
The reasons for the telescope entering safe mode are currently not clear. The team will give an update as soon as they know more.
While it makes you worry a bit to see these highly successful missions having problems, it is important to remember that they have all gone above and beyond their initial mission requirements. The Chandra mission was first designed to last five years, which extended to 10 after its second mission year. Chandra has now been working for 19 years.
Similar arguments can be made for all the other missions that have suffered setbacks this summer. Hubble has been going for 28 years – this is not only an incredible achievement in its own right, but once you consider the world-changing legacy of Hubble, we should be extremely grateful for every second it worked without issue. There is currently a problem with its gyroscopes, but the team will hopefully be able to fix it.
The Opportunity rover is also MIA. Due to the planet-wide dust storm that covered all of Mars, the little robot was forced into hibernation. Despite various attempts, NASA hasn’t heard from it since. They hope that strong winds in the coming months might clean the solar panels and give Opportunity enough juice to recover. The dust storms were always a worry – and in fact, the mission was expected to last 90 days. It is now in its 15th year.
Hopefully, Chandra’s issue is minor and the X-ray telescope can continue to work for many years to come.