That old trick of desperation to get something working again by giving it a bit of a shake? Turns out it's also something that works in space.
Earlier this month, the Hubble Space Telescope placed itself into safe mode after one of its three gyroscopes failed. These instruments help keep Hubble steady as it focuses on objects thousands of light-years away, so it was imperative that NASA engineers fix the problem as soon as possible.
Fortunately, with a string of gyro failures dating back over the course of its 28 years in space, NASA had installed a backup unit during a service mission in 2011. When the command was sent to activate it, however, the initial readings showed rotational spin that was exceedingly high. After years of lying dormant in space, something was causing the gyro to misfire.
The first thing NASA tried was a procedure called a "running restart," which sounds a bit like the tried-and-true method of rebooting your computer or wireless router when all else fails.
"This procedure turned the gyro off for one second, and then restarted it before the wheel spun down," NASA explained in a statement. "The intention was to clear any faults that may have occurred during startup on Oct. 6, after the gyro had been off for more than 7.5 years. However, the resulting data showed no improvement in the gyro's performance."
The Hubble Space Telescope as viewed from Space Shuttle Columbia in March 2002. (Photo: ESA/Flickr)
Drawing perhaps on the human instinct to smack or shake something that's not working, engineers next decided to have Hubble perform a series of sharp turns. Gyroscopes on the space telescope, which normally spin at a constant rate of 19,200 revolutions per minute, are suspended within sealed chambers of thick fluid. Could a bit of a "jiggle" help free whatever was acting against the gyro?
"On Oct. 18, the Hubble operations team commanded a series of spacecraft maneuvers, or turns, in opposite directions to attempt to clear any blockage that may have caused the float to be off-center and produce the exceedingly high rates," they wrote. "During each maneuver, the gyro was switched from high mode to low mode to dislodge any blockage that may have accumulated around the float."
The resulting data after the maneuvers showed a significant reduction in the high rates of the gyroscope. On Oct. 19, the team performed another series of shakes and switches of high to low mode on the gyro to further clear any issues. So far, the unit appears to once more be spinning within operational limits.
"At a high level, if people want to call it jiggling around, I suppose they can," Hubble Operations Project Manager Patrick Crouse told The Washington Post. "But we were trying to do very particular activities we thought would clear the problem. It certainly wasn't as simple as turning it off and turning it back on."
All signs point to the series of shakes and switches working. On Oct. 27, Hubble returned to its normal operations and completed a set of observations of a distant galaxy.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in October 2018.