The Final Frontier

Connor Pittman

Space is known by many as the final frontier. NASA and their international partners, the Canadian Space Agency (CAS) and the European Space Agency (EAS), have been working together to explore more of the galaxy. NASA, in conjunction with EAS, put the Hubble telescope into orbit on April 24, 1990. Although it has been orbiting the earth for 28 years Hubble is not immune to problems.

On October 27, the Hubble telescope went into safe-mode after one of its six onboard gyros failed. NASA had known this gyro was failing, as it had been exhibiting end of life behavior for over a year. Hubble was only using three gyro’s at a time, and two had previously failed before. When the final back up gyro was activated it read rotation rates greatly exceeding any before it. When the ground team discovered this they left the telescope in safe mode to try and figure out why.

Separate from the ground team an anomaly review board met to discuss the future of the telescope if the gyro could not be fixed. According to NASA, Hubble had previously been equipped with software so it could run on a single gyro to maximize its life. This limited how much of the sky was visible at any given time, but it didn’t limit how much science could be done in the mode.

The ground team was able to successfully bring down the rotation rates of the gyro by performing fast, calculated turns and switching it between its two modes: coarse, used for faster turns between focusing on different objects, and precision, used for focusing on objects and staying still.

NASA is currently working on building a second deep space telescope, called the James Webb Space Telescope, which contains a main mirror that is seven times the area of the Hubble telescope’s. The James Webb Space Telescope is being built and is planned to start its mission in spring 2021.

It is being built using 19 hexagonal mirrors to maximize the area of exposure. Hexagon mirrors, unlike round ones used in traditional telescopes, can be stacked with little dead space in between. According to NASA, the large primary mirror is so sensitive that it can detect the heat signature of a bumblebee from the moon or see the details of a US penny 24 miles away. The Webb telescope will utilize the latest infrared technology to peer into the universe and see the earliest stars which will further allow us to study just how the universe grows.

On a more recent happening, another lander has made its way to mars once again. NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, InSight, lander touched down on the Martian surface Monday, November 26 after a seven month trip through space. Designed for a two-year mission, InSight will study meteorological occurrences like wind speed and direction, pressure change and temperature, and seismic happenings.

A pair of small satellites known as CubeSats (because of their small briefcase designs) accompanied InSight to Mars, but they just passed over the Red Planet to relay signals back to NASA. These satellites, named Mars Cube One (MarCO), were the first CubeSats to be used in deep space, and, according to NASA, they were used to test experimental technologies: namely, their high gain antennas used to relay information back to earth.

Once on the ground, InSight sends a signal to these CubeSats, which then relayed it back to Earth. The signal serves the purpose of telling NASA that InSight had made it to the Martian surface safely and is about to start the process of opening its solar arrays.

This mission is a step towards learning what lies beneath the Martian surface and how the rocky interior planets, like the Earth and the Moon, were formed.