NASA’s Gamma Ray Observatory is in safe mode after possible wheel failure

A visualization of the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory has temporarily halted its science observations while the mission team investigates a problem.

On Tuesday night (January 18), the observatory, a gamma-ray hunting space telescope originally called the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Explorer, went into safe mode and halted all scientific work. This maneuver may have been in response to a reaction wheel failure, which the mission team continues to explore.

Swift uses a total of six reaction wheels to autonomously point in the direction of potential gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). When the observatory detected the problem this week, it turned off the problematic wheel, according to a NASA statement. This is the first reaction wheel failure in the telescope’s 17 years of operation in space.

Related: Record-breaking gamma-ray burst captured by Fermi

As the team continues to work on the suspected sixth wheel failure, mission personnel also hope to get Swift’s science instruments back up and running with just five wheels, the statement said.

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Swift launched into space in 2004 and was named after the mission’s principal investigator, Neil Gehrels, who died in 2003. The space telescope blasted off on a mission to study gamma-ray bursts, incredibly energetic explosions in distant galaxies. Short-lived bursts are the most energetic form of light, according to NASA, and can last from mere milliseconds to hours.

Astronomers think they could originate from supernova explosions or from collisions between neutron stars, the dense remnants of supernovae. The spacecraft was sent to observe and study these bright phenomena, which scientists are still working to understand.

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@ or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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