Mars ‘terror,’ future Moon missions and an epic journey to the Sun: 2018’s year in space

2018 has been a busy year for space exploration. Here are some of the highlights: MARS LANDER’S ‘SEVEN MINUTES OF TERROR’ NASA’s Mars InSight Lander reached the Red Planet on Nov. 26 after an epic journey of more than 300-million miles that lasted six months. The final stage of its descent, however, was fraught with … Continue reading “Mars ‘terror,’ future Moon missions and an epic journey to the Sun: 2018’s year in space”

2018 has been a busy year for space exploration. Here are some of the highlights:


NASA’s Mars InSight Lander reached the Red Planet on Nov. 26 after an epic journey of more than 300-million miles that lasted six months. The final stage of its descent, however, was fraught with difficulty – NASA engineers characterize landing on Mars as “seven minutes of terror.”

Safely settled on the surface of the planet, sensors on the Lander recently captured the first-ever “sounds” of Martian wind. The probe also used a camera on its robotic arm, to take its first Mars selfie.


The InSight mission, which is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will provide scientists with a wealth of data. By studying Mars’ deep interior, the mission is expected to provide valuable information on the formation of rocky worlds, including Earth.

Mars looms ever larger in America’s space future.

In November, NASA announced that it has selected the location where its Mars 2020 Rover will land on the Red Planet. The rover is expected to reach the Martian surface on Feb. 18, 2021.

NASA’s long-term goal is to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. However, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin thinks that a slightly later target date of 2040 is more realistic. In an interview in 2016, the Gemini 12 and Apollo 11 astronaut told Fox News that by 2040, astronauts could have visited Mars’ moon Phobos, which could serve as a sort of stepping stone to the Red Planet.


NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover found organic molecules on Mars, the space agency revealed in a major announcement in June.

The molecules, which were found in rocks from an ancient lake bed, provide fresh insight into the Red Planet, according to scientists. The rocks are billions of years old, NASA said.

While NASA went to great lengths to explain that it has not discovered life on Mars, the organic molecules could provide vital clues.


“Organic compounds are fundamental to our search for life,” said Paul Mahaffy, director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Goddard, Md.

Described as the most technologically advanced rover ever built, Curiosity launched on Nov. 26, 2011. The rover landed on Mars' Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012, with the goal of determining whether Mars was ever able to support microbial life.


NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, reached its orbit at asteroid Bennu on Dec. 3 after traveling more than 1 billion miles through space. The spacecraft launched in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The asteroid may provide answers to the origin of our solar system, according to NASA.

OSIRIS-REx will spend almost a year surveying the space rock from orbit. The probe is scheduled to briefly touch the asteroid with a robotic arm in July 2020 and retrieve a sample that will be returned to Earth in September 2023.


Scientists recently made a fascinating discovery on the asteroid. They analyzed data from the probe and identified water locked inside the asteroid’s clay, the space agency announced. The spacecraft’s two spectrometers revealed the presence of “hydroxyls,” which are molecules containing oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together.

Other countries are also ramping up their efforts to study asteroids. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) Hayabusa 2 spacecraft recently lowered two small rovers onto a distant asteroid. Hayabusa 2 arrived at Ryugu on June 27, 2018, when the asteroid was almost 170 million miles from Earth. The spacecraft, which traveled almost 2 billion miles to reach the space rock, is expected to leave Ryugu at the end of 2019 and return to Earth around the end of 2020.


On Oct. 11, NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin made a dramatic escape after their Soyuz booster rocket failed just two minutes after launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The spacecraft was about 30 miles above Earth’s surface when the crew was forced to make a dangerous “ballistic re-entry” into Earth’s atmosphere. After the successful deployment of its parachute, the rescue capsule landed safely in the steppes of Kazakhstan about 30 minutes after the rocket failure.

A Russian investigation attributed the failure to a sensor that was damaged during the rocket's final assembly.


Less than two months later, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying three astronauts, including one American, successfully docked with the International Space Station. The launch from Kazakhstan was the first successful manned mission to the space lab since the aborted Soyuz launch.

The Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only vehicle that can ferry crews to the space station, but Russia stands to lose that monopoly in the coming years with the arrival of SpaceX's Dragon and Boeing's Starliner crew capsules.


The leak was spotted on Aug. 30 in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft attached to the orbiting space lab. The crew quickly located and sealed the tiny hole that created a slight loss of pressure, and space officials said the station has remained safe to operate.

The capsule leak caused a flap between the U.S. and Russian space agencies. Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin observed that the hole could have been drilled during manufacturing — or in orbit. The space station's commander at the time flatly denied any wrongdoing by himself or his crew.


The Russian space chief has since backpedaled on his statement, saying that he never pointed the finger at U.S. astronauts and blaming the media for twisting his statement.

Rogozin said recently that the Russian official probe is ongoing. During a grueling spacewalk in December, Russian cosmonauts took samples of the black epoxy sealant protruding from the hole and put insulation over the area. Roscosmos will discuss the probe findings with NASA and other space station partners, according to Rogozin.


In November, NASA announced that Lockheed Martin and eight other companies will compete for $2.6 billion worth of contracts to help take American astronauts back to the Moon and Mars.

In addition to Lockheed, which built the Mars InSight lander, NASA's commercial partners include Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space System, Draper, Firefly, Intuitive Machines, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and Orbit Beyond.

The contracts could be worth as much as $2.6 billion over a span of 10 years and flights could start as soon as next year, officials said. The original list included more than 30 companies vying for the bids, including Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.


President Donald Trump wants U.S. astronauts to return to the Moon as a foundation for future Mars missions.

The last time a human set foot on the Moon was during the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. Only 12 men, all Americans, have set foot on the Moon.

NASA’s goal is also to send to manned missions into space from U.S. soil during the coming years. Since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the U.S. has been relying on Russian Soyuz rockets, launched from Kazakhstan, to get astronauts to the ISS.

In August, NASA also named nine “American hero” astronauts that will crew the test flights and first space station resupply missions on SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft.


NASA’s Parker Solar Probe blasted off on its odyssey from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket in the early hours of Aug. 12, 2018.

The $1.5 billion mission will take humanity closer to the Sun than ever before. Parker is the first spacecraft to fly through the Sun’s corona, the outermost part of the star’s atmosphere

To withstand the heat of nearly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the probe is protected by a special 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield.


Parker will face “brutal” heat and radiation during the epic journey that will take it to within 3.83 million miles of the Sun’s surface, according to the space agency. This is seven times closer than the previous closest spacecraft, Helios 2, which came within 27 million miles of the Sun in 1976.

Harnessing Venus’ gravity, Parker will complete seven flybys over seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer and closer to the Sun. On its closest approach in 2024, the probe will be traveling at approximately 430,000 mph, setting a new speed record for a manmade object.

The Sun’s corona, which can be seen during a total solar eclipse, is usually hidden by the bright light of the star’s surface. The probe, named after pioneering solar physicist Dr. Eugene Parker, will provide a wealth of invaluable scientific data.

Scientists expect to shed new light on the Sun’s potential to disrupt satellites and spacecraft, as well as electronics and communications on Earth.

In November, the probe snapped a stunning picture of the Sun’s atmosphere.


In March, scientists announced the discovery of 15 new planets, including a “super-Earth” that may have liquid water on its surface.

The planets are orbiting small, cool stars near our solar system, known as “Red Dwarfs.”

One of the brightest Red Dwarfs, K2-155, has three “super-Earths,” one of which, K2-155d, could be within the star’s habitable zone. K2-155d, which has a radius 1.6 times that of Earth, may harbor liquid water, according to three-dimensional global climate simulations.

K2-155 is about 200 light-years from Earth. A light-year, which measures distance in space, equals 6 trillion miles.


In February, revealed the discovery, for the first time, of planets in galaxies beyond the Milky Way.

Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, a team of astrophysicists from the University of Oklahoma identified the extragalactic planets about 3.8 billion light-years away. The space observatory helped scientists find about 2,000 objects with comparable mass to the Moon and Jupiter.

The Oklahoma University team used a technique called microlensing, which identifies the gravitational signature of planets orbiting extremely distant stars.


Oumuamua, the first interstellar object ever spotted in our solar system, also garnered plenty of attention in 2018. NASA said that Oumuamua is a "metallic or rocky object," while a study from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics speculated that it could be a “lightsail” sent from an ancient civilization.

Fox News’ Chris Ciaccia, Jennifer Earl, Amy Lieu and the Associated Press contributed to this article. Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

Huge green fireball from Geminid meteor shower captured on Indiana officer’s dash cam

An Indiana officer got a stunning view of the Geminid meteor shower — known as one of the best meteor shows of the year — from his patrol car late Wednesday.

Cpl. Chris Cramer from the Howard County Sheriff’s Department was driving on a roadway just before midnight when a flash of bright light caught his eye.

"[He] caught what appears to be a meteor entering our atmosphere on his dash camera near 600 E. on SR22," the sheriff's department posted on Facebook Thursday night, along with a 20-second clip.


The video, which shows a huge green fireball streak across the sky, has been viewed more than 12,000 times since it was posted. Residents were quick to chime in — many confirming they, too, spotted meteors this week.

"Meteor shower last night and tonight. Granted its cloudy tonight. I saw about 30 or more. Pretty cool," one man commented on the Howard County Sheriff’s Department's post.

"That’s the same one … I saw while in Galveston on that call last night! Lol you guys thought we were crazy!" one Facebook user replied to his friend.


"It's cool being in the right place at the right time. Dash cams have lots of uses. Thanks for posting," another added.

The winter meteor shower made its annual appearance this week. The meteor shower, which contains debris from 3200 Phaethon, peaked Thursday night into Friday morning and was expected to shoot off anywhere between 60 to 120 meteors per hour. The space rocks zoomed by, hitting Earth at around 22 miles per second, according to the American Meteor Society (AMS).

"The Geminids are often bright and intensely colored," the AMS states on its website. "Due to their medium-slow velocity, persistent trains are not usually seen."

The shower was visible in both the Northern and Southern atmospheres after midnight Thursday, though pollution, weather and the Moon may have prevented some stargazers from catching the show.

“The meteors will appear in all parts of the sky,” Bruce McClure and Deborah Byrd previously explained to EarthSky. “It’s even possible to have your back to the constellation Gemini and see a Geminid meteor fly by. However, if you trace the path of a Geminid meteor backwards, it appears to originate from within the constellation Gemini.”

Jennifer Earl is an SEO editor for Fox News. Follow her on Twitter @jenearlyspeakin.

Comet 46P\u002FWirtanen visible this weekend: How to watch

If you see a small, green ball glowing in the sky this holiday season, it’s not Santa getting ready to deliver gifts but Comet 46P/Wirtanen.

The comet – although about 7 million miles away – will make its "closest approach" to Earth for the next two decades, according to NASA.

Additionally, the Geminid meteor shower should also be visible this week for its annual appearance.

Here’s everything to know about the comet and how to see it.

What is the Comet 46P/Wirtanen?

Astronomer Carl Wirtanen first discovered the comet in 1948, according to

It is considered to be in the “Jupiter family” of comets.

When will it be visible?

The comet moved closer to the Sun on Dec. 12 and will pass closer to Earth on Dec. 16, according to

In the coming years, the comet is expected to be nudged further and further away from Earth, according to

“Thus, we can be certain that there can be no very close approach to the Earth ever again. So take full advantage of this upcoming very close encounter!” the site recommends.

How can I see it?

Researchers have said it should be bright enough to view with the naked eye at night on Dec. 16 – although a telescope or binoculars would undoubtedly help. But warns it “likely will not evolve into a spectacular sight.” Be on the lookout for a “large, diffuse, dim object,” the site adds.

Livestreams are also available from the Virtual Telescope Project.

Kaitlyn Schallhorn is a Reporter for Fox News. Follow her on Twitter: @K_Schallhorn.

Geminid meteor shower peaks this week: What to know about the ‘strongest meteor shower of the year’

Stargazers, get ready to bundle up as you catch one of the best meteor shows of the year — the Geminid meteor shower.

A sprinkle of stars will be visible in the night's sky this week as the winter meteor shower makes its annual appearance. The meteor shower, which contains debris from 3200 Phaethon, is expected to peak Thursday night into Friday morning, shooting anywhere between 60 to 120 meteors per hour. The space rocks will zoom by, hitting Earth at around 22 miles per second, according to the American Meteor Society (AMS).

"The Geminids are often bright and intensely colored," the AMS states on its website. "Due to their medium-slow velocity, persistent trains are not usually seen."


Here's everything you need to know about the starry spectacle.

How are meteors formed?

A meteor forms when a meteoroid, a type of space rock that breaks off from an asteroid — a rocky body orbiting the sun — enters Earth's atmosphere. As soon as the space debris crosses over, it breaks down into what scientists call a "meteor," which then vaporizes and — as a result of friction — appears as a bright streak of light in the sky.

"Because of their appearance, these streaks of light some people call meteors 'shooting stars,'" NASA explains in a blog post. "But scientists know that meteors are not stars at all — they are just bits of rock!"

What is a Geminid meteor, specifically?

Geminid meteors are small chunks of rock that break off the famous 3200 Phaethon. These particular meteors are named after their point of origin — the constellation Gemini.

“The meteor shower is triggered by an interesting object. 3200 Phaethon is a comet/asteroid hybrid. It orbits the sun every 550+ days. This object puts out a fresh batch of debris every other year. This makes the Geminid meteor shower very consistent. Some argue it is actually increasing in intensity,” Accuweather astronomy expert Dave Samuhel explains.

When can I see the Geminid meteor shower?

A Geminid meteor streaks across the sky. (Jimmy Westlake/NASA)

Technically, meteors will be flying across all week. But your best bet at witnessing a fireball in action will be overnight on Dec. 13 and Dec. 14  — when the shower reaches its peak. You’ll be able to catch the most meteors around 2 a.m. on that night.

The shower will be visible in both the Northern and Southern atmospheres after midnight, though pollution, weather and the Moon could cloud the sky and prevent you from catching the show.


“From the Southern Hemisphere, observers should see fewer, but still plenty, of medium speed meteors once Gemini rises above the horizon after midnight local time,” NASA told Accuweather.

How can I watch it?

Unlike solar eclipses, which requires special equipment to view the astrological event, you don't need anything to spot this celestial event.

"Get to a dark spot, get comfortable, bring extra blankets to stay warm, and let your eyes adjust to the dark sky," NASA suggests. "A cozy lounge chair makes for a great seat, as does simply lying on your back on a blanket, eyes scanning the whole sky."

It takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, so you should head outside about an hour before the meteors are expected to shoot across the sky.

“The meteors will appear in all parts of the sky,” Bruce McClure and Deborah Byrd previously explained to EarthSky. “It’s even possible to have your back to the constellation Gemini and see a Geminid meteor fly by. However, if you trace the path of a Geminid meteor backwards, it appears to originate from within the constellation Gemini.”

Jennifer Earl is an SEO editor for Fox News. Follow her on Twitter @jenearlyspeakin.

Ultraprecise atomic clock network on the hunt for dark matter

Researchers are putting a global network of the most precise timekeepers ever made to the task of hunting for dark matter, the invisible and largely intangible substance that researchers think makes up about five-sixths of all matter in the universe.

The existence of dark matter is suggested via its gravitational effects on the movements of stars and galaxies. However, it remains a mystery as to what it might be composed of, and projects ranging from the most powerful atom smasher ever built to vats of chilly liquid xenon have failed to find a trace of it so far, lead study author Piotr Wcisło, a physicist at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland, told

Scientists have largely eliminated all known particles as possible explanations for dark matter. One remaining possibility is that dark matter is made of a new kind of particle; another is that dark matter is not made of particles at all, but rather a field that pervades space much like gravity does. [8 Baffling Astronomy Mysteries]

Previous research suggested that if dark matter is a field, structures could emerge within it — "topological defects" shaped like points, strings or sheets and potentially reaching at least the size of a planet, Wcisło said. These structures might have formed during the chaos after the Big Bang, and essentially froze into stable forms when the early universe cooled down.

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  • Now scientists are testing the existence of dark-matter fields by looking for disturbances in some of the most accurate scientific instruments ever constructed — atomic clocks. These instruments keep time by monitoring the quivering of atoms, much as grandfather clocks rely on swinging pendulums. Nowadays, atomic clocks are so accurate that they would lose no more than 1 second every 15 billion years, longer than the 13.8-billion-year age of the universe.

    Interacting with a topological defect could make an atomic clock's atoms temporarily shake faster or slower. By monitoring a network of synchronized atomic clocks that are spread far enough apart for a topological defect to have an effect on some clocks but not others, scientists could detect the existence of these ghostly structures and measure some of their properties, such as their size and speed.

    The researchers employed optical atomic clocks, which use laser beams to measure the motions of atoms when they are slowed down by cooling them to temperatures near absolute zero. They calculated that passing through a topological defect could increase or decrease the fine-structure constant, which describes the overall strength of the electromagnetic force. Such changes would alter how atoms respond to lasers and the rate at which those clocks ticked.

    Another possible explanation for dark matter is that its effects are caused by fields that vary in strength over time, which in turn lead to regular fluctuations in the strength of the electromagnetic field. Atomic clocks could, in theory, help detect such "coherently oscillating classical scalar fields," the scientists noted.

    By analyzing four atomic clocks on three continents — in Colorado, France, Poland and Japan — the researchers could look for subtle variations in the fine-structure constant with about 100 times greater sensitivity than previous experiments. However, they did not detect any signal consistent with dark matter.

    One of the major problems of optical atomic clocks is that they can currently only operate continuously for about a day, Wcisło said. One reason for this is that optical atomic clocks need to keep many lasers operating in sync in order to work, and over time at least one of these lasers fall out of sync. However, Wcisło noted a key advantage of their network is that it does not require all its clocks to operate at the same time.

    The scientists aim to double the number of clocks in their network in the next year or two, Wcisło said, which could increase the sensitivity and observation time of their network by a factor of 10 or more.

    The scientists detailed their findings online today (Dec. 7) in the journal Science Advances.

    Original article on

    China’s ancient ‘pyramids’ reveal their stunning secrets

    A researcher has uncovered fascinating new details about the construction of ancient “pyramids” in China.

    There are over 40 “pyramid” mausoleums in China, which are huge artificial earth hills. Only two of these sites have been partly excavated, according to Giulio Magli of the Politecnico di Milano in Italy, author of a new study on the pyramids.

    The research, which examines the role of astronomy and Feng Shui in ancient Chinese necropolises, used satellite data and field surveys to collect a wealth of information on the archaeological sites. One of the sites is the pyramid tomb China’s First Emperor Qin Shi Huang, which is guarded by the famous Terracotta Army.


    In a study published in the journal Archaeological Research in Asia Magli notes that the ancient Chinese pyramids fall into two categories. One group of tombs is oriented “with good precision” to the cardinal points of north, south, east and west.

    Terracotta Warriors protecting the Qin Mausoleum’s east front. (Giulio Magli)

    In a statement, the researcher explains that, like their counterparts in Egypt, the ancient Chinese emperors saw their power as “a direct mandate of the heaven, identifying the circumpolar region as a celestial image of the imperial palace and its inhabitants.” As a result, the orientation of pyramids toward the cardinal points should come as no surprise.

    However, the second group of pyramids is oriented away from true north. Specifically, these tombs orient to the west of north, when looking toward the monument. “It is out of the question that this second family may have been due to errors of the Chinese astronomers and architects,” Magli explained.


    Instead, the study proposes that the ancient pyramid builders were accounting for the rotation of the Earth’s axis, which, over long periods of time, alters the position of stars in the night sky.


    “The explanation proposed in the article is thus astronomical: the emperors who built the pyramids of the ‘family 2’ did not want to point to the north celestial pole, which at the time did not correspond to any star, but to the star to which the pole would be approached in the future: Polaris,” he explained.

    Polaris, also known as the North Star or Pole Star, is located in the constellation of Ursa Minor and has long been used as an important guide for navigation. While modern astronomers are used to identifying the north celestial pole with Polaris (although it is not a perfect alignment), at the time of the ancient Han emperors in China, the pole was still far from Polaris, Magli explained.

    Other discoveries are shedding new light on ancient China. In 2016, archaeologists revealed evidence that ancient Greeks may have helped design the Terracotta Army, potentially offering fresh insight into China’s early contact with the west.

    Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

    Scientists detect the most massive black hole collision yet

    Black holes are out there making waves.

    Four new gravitational wave detections were announced during a science conference over the weekend, bringing the total number of detections to 11 since the first monumental discovery in February 2016.

    Of these detections, one is the most distant and most massive event to date – resulting from two black holes that collided roughly five billion years ago. This collision formed a new black hole 80 times more massive than the sun.

    “It took science a century to confirm Einstein’s prediction of the existence of gravitational waves,” Sheila Rowan, a physicist at the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.“But the pace of our discoveries since then has been exhilarating and we’re anticipating many more exciting detections to come.”

    Interestingly, the latest detections weren’t derived from new data. Both detection facilities — the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in the US and Advanced Virgo facility in Italy — have been switched off for upgrading since 2017. Rather, scientists pored back through data collected between November 2016 and August 2017.

    But these four new discoveries are giving scientists just enough black hole data (10 detections have been black hole mergers, while one was a neutron star merger) to start drawing some conclusions about what black holes really are.

    “We now have a sharper picture of both how frequently stellar mass binary black holes merge and what their masses are,” Chris Pankow, an astrophysicist at Northwestern University, said in a separate statement. “These measurements will further enable us to understand how the most massive stars of our Universe are born, live and die.”

    The research is described by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration in two papers (here and here.) The aLIGO detectors are scheduled to be turned back on in early 2019. Scientists hope that with the new upgrades they’ll be able to detect two black hole mergers a month.

    This story originally appeared in the New York Post.

    Recovered Hubble Telescope nabs nifty new picture

    After taking a short break from observing the cosmos, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is officially back up and running, and the observatory captured a stunning new view of a distant, star-forming galaxy.

    On Oct. 5, the Hubble telescope went into a protective "safe mode" when one of its orientation-maintaining gyroscopes failed. After about three weeks, the mission team was able to fix the balky gyro and get Hubble back online. Shortly thereafter, the telescope homed in on a field of star-forming galaxies located approximately 11 billion light-years away from Earth, in the constellation Pegasus.

    The new image, taken on Oct. 27 using the telescope's Wide Field Camera 3, was the first picture captured by the telescope after it returned to service, according to a statement from NASA. However, getting Hubble back online was no easy feat; it involved an entire team of engineers and experts who worked tirelessly to find a fix, officials said in the statement. [The Hubble Space Telescope's Greatest Discoveries]

    "This has been an incredible saga, built upon the heroic efforts of the Hubble team," Jennifer Wiseman, Hubble senior project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in the statement. "Thanks to this work, the Hubble Space Telescope is back to full science capability that will benefit the astronomical community and the public for years to come."

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  • Once members of Hubble's operations team were notified that the telescope had stopped taking science observations, they quickly tried to revive the failed gyro, but were unsuccessful.

    Instead, the team was able to activate a backup gyro on the spacecraft. However, that gyro soon reported incredibly high rotation rates of 450 degrees per hour, when Hubble was actually turning at less than 1 degree per hour. The team had never seen rates that high on any other gyros, according to the statement.

    The Hubble telescope has a total of six gyros, but generally uses only three at a time to collect data about the telescope's orientation. Because two of the telescope's six gyros had previously failed, this was the final backup gyro. That meant the operations team had to figure out how to get it working or resort to a possible "one-gyro mode," which would greatly limit Hubble's observations.

    In 2011, Hubble's control center switched to automated operations, meaning people no longer monitored the telescope 24 hours a day. However, during Hubble's brief stint offline, team members continuously tracked the telescope's health and safety.

    "The team pulled together to staff around the clock, something we haven't done in years," Dave Haskins, Hubble's mission operations manager at Goddard, said in the statement. "To me, it was seamless. It shows the versatility of the team."

    NASA also brought in an additional team of experts to figure out how to correct the backup gyro's unusual behavior. After weeks of creative thinking, continuous tests and minor setbacks, the team concluded that there may be some sort of blockage. They attempted to resolve this issue by switching the gyro between different operational modes and rotating the spacecraft. As a result, the gyro gradually changed its rotation to more-normal rates, according to the statement.

    Following that success, the team uploaded new software to the telescope and performed a series of practice maneuvers to simulate real science observations. This ensured that the telescope was ready for action, with three working gyros.

    Meanwhile, other team members had turned their focus to preparing Hubble to use only one gyro. Even though those preparations are not needed right now, NASA officials said the telescope will inevitably be switched to one-gyro mode at some point, and now teams will be ready for that.

    "Many team members made personal sacrifices to work long shifts and off-shifts to ensure the health and safety of the observatory, while identifying a path forward that was both safe and effective," Pat Crouse, Hubble project manager, said in the statement.

    "The recovery of the gyro is not only vital for the life expectancy of the observatory, but Hubble is most productive in three-gyro mode, and extending this historic period of productivity is a main objective for the mission," he said. "Hubble will continue to make amazing discoveries when it is time to operate in one-gyro mode, but due to the tremendous effort and determination of the mission team, now is not the time."

    Original article on