The Rescue of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory

Orbital mechanics, multitasking, and a software glitch nearly ended a 12-year mission

6 min read
The Rescue of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory

24 August 2011—When the science and engineering team that operates the Chandra X-Ray Observatory celebrated the space telescope’s 12th year in orbit on 23 July, it was with a sense of real accomplishment—and also a collective sigh of relief. Just a few weeks earlier, the NASA satellite suffered the kind of mysterious failure that had the team worried that its long-lived instrument was about to sign off. It also had the astrophysics community concerned that its chief tool for taking X-ray images of the universe might be lost.

The nearly 4.8-metric-ton telescope is capable of imaging the hottest objects in the universe. Notably, it has provided astonishing insights into the anatomy and physiology of black holes and their crucial role in galaxy formation and destruction.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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