Gehrels-Swift returns to science operations

The Gehrels-Swift orbiting space telescope has returned to full science operations, after engineers determined the shut down on January 18th was caused by the failure of one reaction wheel and uploaded software allowing the telescope to function using only its remaining five gyroscopes.

In the last two decades satellite engineers have developed a range of software to allow spacecraft to point with acceptable accuracy using as few as two gyroscopes, even one in some circumstances. Thus, Gehrels-Swift has significant margin with five working reaction wheels.

Engineers determine failed gyroscope caused Gehrels-Swift shutdown

Engineers have now determined that the failure of one of the six reaction wheels that point the orbiting Gehrels-Swift Observatory was the cause of its shutdown into safe mode on January 18th, and are now reconfiguring the space telescope to operate with only five gyroscopes.

The team is currently testing the settings for operating the spacecraft using the five operational reaction wheels. After the tests for these settings have been completed, they plan to upload them to the spacecraft next week.

Swift can fully carry out its science mission with five wheels. After careful analysis, the team has determined that the five-wheel configuration will minimally impact the movements necessary for Swift to make science observations. The team expects the change will slightly delay the spacecraft’s initial response time when responding to onboard gamma-ray burst triggers, but this will not impact Swift’s ability to make these observations and meet its original operational requirements.

Only after getting Gehrels-Swift operating again will the engineers then consider trying to recover the failed reaction wheel.

Gehrels-Swift was one of the key space telescopes that made it possible for astronomers to solve the mystery of gamma ray bursts. It is also used today to help identify the source of mysteries like fast radio bursts and other supernovae events. It was designed to quickly begin observing in multiple wavelengths any spot in the sky where a mystery burst or new supernova has occurred, thus getting astronomers the earliest new data possible.

NASA renames Swift telescope to honor Neil Gehrels

NASA has renamed the Swift space telescope, designed to quickly detect and observe fast transient events in space like gamma ray bursts, to honor the late Neil Gehrels, the man who led the project from day one.

During a presentation at a NASA town hall meeting at the 231st Meeting of the American Astronomical Society here, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said that Swift would now be known as the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory.

Gehrels, who died in February 2017, had been principal investigator for Swift, a mission launched in 2004. The spacecraft was designed to be able to rapidly respond to transient events, such as gamma-ray bursts, observing them at wavelengths ranging from gamma rays to visible light.

“Neil wore many hats in service to the astrophysics community,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, at a later press conference at the meeting. In addition to being the principal investigator for Swift, had served as project scientist on the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory and Fermi missions. At the time of his death last year he was project scientist for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, NASA’s next flagship astronomy mission after the James Webb Space Telescope.

Knowing astronomers, they will now refer to this observatory as the NGSO. Not I. It will be “Gehrels Swift” to me, whenever I need to mention it. Gehrels was one of the most friendly, open, and easy-to-work-with astronomers I ever had to deal with. He is sorely missed.