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NASA’s Chandra spacecraft snaps out of ‘safe mode’ funk, resumes operations

Published Oct 16th, 2018 8:08PM EDT
chandra update

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It was only a few days ago that NASA announced its Chandra X-Ray Observatory was experiencing a bit of unexpected downtime. The spacecraft was forced to enter its automated safe mode, which it’s designed to do if it detects that something is wrong. NASA noticed the glitch on Wednesday and announced the unfortunate status of the satellite on Friday.

Now, in a new update from the Chandra team, NASA reveals that they’ve figured out what was wrong with the observatory and that all is well once more. Coincidentally, the error was caused by one of Chandra’s gyroscopes that it uses for orientation, which is also the reason that the aging Hubble is currently in a safe mode of its own.

“The cause of Chandra’s safe mode on October 10 has now been understood and the Operations team has successfully returned the spacecraft to its normal pointing mode,” the update reads. “The safe mode was caused by a glitch in one of Chandra’s gyroscopes resulting in a 3-second period of bad data that in turn led the on-board computer to calculate an incorrect value for the spacecraft momentum. The erroneous momentum indication then triggered the safe mode.”

That “3-second period of bad data” was enough that the spacecraft thought that something might be seriously wrong and decided to default into a safe mode so that its engineers could check. Thankfully it would appear that the glitch was minor, and the satellite isn’t expected to be sidelined as a result.

This is obviously very good news for the Chandra team and for NASA, but there’s no denying that the spacecraft is entering its twilight years. The satellite is 19 years old, which might not sound like a long time, but it’s getting up there in terms of satellite age. The observatory was actually only designed to last five years when it was launched, but NASA extended its mission when it became clear that the satellite was up for additional work.

For now, at least, Chandra will resume its normal work load, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed that its downtime wasn’t a symptom of a larger problem still looming.