Our Space Telescopes Are Dying!

Think about it: Hubble is down to one gyro, maybe two; Kepler is in safe mode; and today, the Chandra X-ray telescope went into safe mode; Spitzer has run out of coolant what's going to replace these observatories?

Published on 13th Oct, 2018

Hello Space Fans and welcome to another edition of Space Fan News. In this episode: Hubble is down to one gyro, maybe two; Kepler is in safe mode; and today, the Chandra X-ray telescope went into safe mode; Spitzer has run out of coolant but still doing science - our fleet of space telescopes is getting older what are we replacing them with? We’re entering into a strange time for space astronomy. Over the decades we’ve launched and operated many space telescopes and they’ve affected our perception of ourselves and our universe in the most stupendous and wonderful ways. Every space telescope we’ve ever launched has exceeded expectations and lasted well beyond their designed mission lifetimes. It turns out that human beings do space telescopes really well. So when I learned today that the Chandra X-ray telescope, one of four of what NASA calls it’s Great Observatories, went into safe mode on October 10th, I started thinking about the state of what’s up there and started wondering what’s coming up and based on the timing and the current state of future missions, I think we might be in for a stretch of time where very few space telescopes are taking observations. A sort of a space telescope dark ages that we haven’t seen yet. First let me update you on Chandra. On October 10th, the X-ray observatory entered into safe mode. This means the spacecraft went into a configuration that would protect the equipment, moved the mirrors away from the sun, and pointed the solar panels to get maximum sunlight. NASA does not yet know why Chandra went into safe mode and it is investigating what’s going on right now. Like it’s brethren, the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes (the fourth Great Observatory, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory was deorbited in 2000 after it lost its gyros), Chandra has been up there a long time. For 19 years it has been providing us with views of the cosmos in the X-ray, a vital wavelength for understanding black holes, quasars, supernovae and other high energy objects and events. Also like it’s brethren it’s lasted way, way longer than it was designed to. Even Compton lasted nine years, four years longer than designed. All of the space telescopes, most notably Hubble because it’s been repaired five times and been up there for 28 years, have well exceeded expectations. But they are all starting to show their age. Hubble can no longer be repaired because it outlasted the space shuttle program and we can’t get to it anymore, It’s down to one gyro and while everyone is optimistic, it really is on borrowed time; Chandra is now in safe mode; Kepler, even though it’s not a great observatory, is still very near and dear to all of our hearts because of all the exoplanet discoveries it has made, is now in safe mode and almost out of gas, no one really knows how much longer it will be taking data but it won’t be for much longer. So I’ve been thinking about where this leaves us in the short term, are we in for some proverbial dark ages? The next big mission to launch will be Hubble’s successor JWST, but that’s way behind schedule and won’t launch any sooner than 2021, over three years from now. WFIRST is behind that but won’t go up until sometime in the mid-2020’s, so that’s at least five or six years away. There’s a couple things that might replace Chandra, ESA is building the Athena X-ray observatory but that won’t launch for ten years in 2028 and the upcoming Lynx Space Telescope would also fill that role if they decide on that mission during the next decadal survey. TESS is currently trying to fill Kepler’s shoes on the exoplanet front but compared to Kepler it isn’t really doing the same thing during it’s two year survey. There’s also ESA’s Plato Mission to hunt for exoplanets, but again, not till around 2026. So I dunno. It just hit me today that we might be in for some dark times, photonically speaking when it comes to space astronomy. There might not be much overlap between the old and the new missions. We might get lucky and Hubble will stay working until JWST gets up there, but the idea that they will be working side by side has become wishful thinking (I think anyway) thanks to the JWST delays. What do you guys think? Is it just me or is it taking longer and longer to get these telescopes up into space? Will the ground-based telescopes in operation now and the behemoths being built around the globe now take up some of the slack? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. That’s it for this episode Space Fans, SFN is made possible by these amazing Patreon Patrons who help me make sure to keep making videos. Remeber guys, we have a Q&A coming up in a week or so, I’ll post about it on the Patreon Page. Thanks to all of you for watching and as always, Keep Looking Up!