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Swift Observatory in safe mode as NASA investigates issue

An issue with NASA’s Swift Observatory has forced it to suspend science operations and enter safe mode while the team investigates. The space-based telescope is not one of NASA’s best-known missions, but it has played a key role in investigating an astronomical phenomenon called gamma-ray bursts.

The telescope, originally named the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Explorer and later renamed the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, experienced a problem earlier this week suspected to be related to faulty hardware. “On the evening of Tuesday, January 18, NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory entered into safe mode, suspending pointed science observations,” NASA wrote in a brief update. “The mission team is investigating a possible failure of one of the spacecraft’s reaction wheels as the cause.”

An artist's rendering of the Swift spacecraft with a gamma-ray burst going off in the background.
An artist’s rendering of the Swift spacecraft with a gamma-ray burst going off in the background. Spectrum and NASA E/PO, Sonoma State University, Aurore Simonnet

The reaction wheels are components that allow the spacecraft to rotate to a very precise degree, which helps to keep the telescope pointed in one direction. This is important for Swift’s mission to study gamma-ray bursts as this requires a high degree of sensitivity. The bursts last a few minutes at most, and a few milliseconds at least, so Swift has to locate these events quickly before they disappear.

In order to figure out if one of the reaction wheels is indeed the culprit, the team has powered off the wheel in question for further investigation. The good news is that the other instruments seem to be healthy, and if necessary the team believes that they can continue to operate the observatory with five of its six wheels functioning.

“The team is working to restore science operations using five reaction wheels. The remaining five wheels are all working as expected,” NASA writes, adding that, “This is the first time a reaction wheel has experienced a failure in Swift’s 17 years of operations.”

In addition to hunting down gamma-ray bursts, the Swift Observatory has also provided data that was used in collaboration with other telescopes, such as contributing to findings about gravitational waves and helping to investigate famous supermassive black hole M87.

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