Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Problem solving

Kepler, and what it's looking at. Credit: NASA
I recently learnt that sometime late last year, the Kepler telescope suffered a pretty huge failure. Two of its four gyroscope reaction wheels, the things that keep it pointing so precisely at that dark part of the sky, have stopped working. A spacecraft needs at least 3 gyroscopes (one in each dimension of x, y and z) for stability and in Keplers case, these needed to be very sensitive in order to collect data from a long way of tiny measurements of light intensity, stellar conditions and asteroseismology.

Apparently on the telescope, there were two good gryos and two not so good ones. It was the not so good ones that failed, and we are left with two gyros left. But that still leaves the problem of on gyro down. The solution is to me a pure act of problem solving, and some great science and Physics to get to the solution.

I love the fact that a seemingly mission terminating failure occurs, but instead of accepting the failure, the mission scientists etc have simple changed the mission lightly to continue observing with only two gryos and possibly even making to experiment better. This is pure brilliance nd I am very lucky that I get to work with some of the people that make this project a reality

The pressure that the photons from the Sun exert on Keplers solar panels in fact give it a small push (very small), but over time, this will put strain on what was determined to be two not so good gryos, and once that have stopped working (friction etc) the solar pressure on the solar panels will push the telescope out of alignment, No mater what you do, you can not keep Kepler pointing at that one spot with only two gyros.

Credit: NASA
This solar pressure is a push, and if you break it down, a Gyroscope can be looked at as a push or a force too. So the idea is to use the solar pressure as a sort of third gyroscope on board the telescope. A brilliant idea, that makes me think that sort of backup plan has been though of all along. It also fills me with confidence that if another gyro goes, they've probably got a solution worked out for that too, if not, they'll certainly be tying to think of one now!

The exciting thing for me is that we'll now be able to look at 2 regions of space to find planets, potentially doubling the amount of planets to be found and gifting us with a comparison of two areas of space. In science we look for comparisons.

I love the fact that seemingly catastrophic failure has not only not been a failure, but cold keep on imaging and providing us with fantastic and meaningful results as well as potentially make the project better.

Scientists are problem solvers, this is what we're good at, it's why scientists are being employed all over the place ow and in some places that you wouldn't expect to see scientists. Financial institutions and the stock market for example. We have analytical brains and approach problems differently than lawyers for example. I'm not saying better, just different. This is a wonderful example of problem solving at it's best.

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