NASA suspends Swift gamma-ray space telescope operations

A spacecraft that looks like its wrapped in foil (it's not really, of course) up in orbit.
An illustration of NASA's Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory in space over Earth. (Image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

NASA has officially halted science observations conducted by its Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory.  

Don't worry, though. 

The space telescope, which observes some of the most powerful blasts of radiation from the universe's most violent cosmic events, known as "gamma-ray bursts," is only temporarily out of order. NASA placed Swift into safe mode on March 15 as a result of the "degrading performance" of one of the three gyroscopes the space telescope uses to direct itself toward astrophysical sources astronomers want to study.

NASA said the Swift team has been tracking increased noise in the gyroscope for a number of months. In mid-March, the gyroscope's performance had deteriorated so much that the spacecraft was struggling to lock with its star tracker and thus execute successful science observations.

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Swift was technically designed to continue to meet mission requirements in the face of the failure of one gyroscope, but its onboard flight software needs a patch in order to let the satellite operate properly in two-gyroscope mode.

"We are working to upload and install this patch, which we expect will return the spacecraft to full functionality in as rapid and safe a manner as possible," NASA wrote on its Swift website. "Until the patch has been successfully deployed, science observations are expected to be very limited."

An illustration shows a gamma-ray burst striking Earth. (Image credit: ESA/ATG Europe; CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

How Swift rocks the BOAT with powerful observations

Swift has been serving NASA and observing the high-energy cosmos for almost 20 years since its launch from the space agency's historic Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Complex 17-A on Nov. 20, 2004.

Its main role is to observe GRBs, which are highly intense flashes of gamma rays, the highest energy form of light. GRBs can last from just a few milliseconds to a few hundred seconds. This means Swift has to inform ground-based telescopes extremely quickly about a GRB to allow them to focus on its afterglow.

To solve the mystery of what events launch GRBs, be it the collapse of a massive star, the birth a black hole or the collision and merger of neutron stars, Swift observes the universe with three multiwavelength telescopes covering visible, ultraviolet, X-ray and gamma-ray light.

The brightest gamma-ray burst ever seen as observed by the Swift  Telescope around an hour after it erupted.  (Image credit: NASA/Swift/A. Beardmore (University of Leicester))

One of the most remarkable discoveries made by Swift in its two decades of operation is a GRB scientists lovingly nicknamed the "Brightest Of All Time" or the "BOAT." 

The BOAT could very well be the most powerful known space explosion since the Big Bang.

Swift saw the BOAT on Oct. 9, 2022, and the blast immediately stood out from other GRBs due to its extreme nature. The BOAT, which it more officially designated GRB 221009A, was first seen as an immensely bright flash of high-energy gamma rays, with this initial emission followed by a fading afterglow across many wavelengths of light.

The BOAT was at least 10 times as energetic as other GRBs seen by Swift, and photons detected as part of this GRB carried more energy than particles accelerated to near-light speeds in humanity's biggest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The BOAT is believed to have been launched by a star, with a mass equivalent to 30 suns, reaching the end of its life and going supernova in the direction of the constellation Sagitta. 

This explosion occurred so far away that its light had been traveling for 2.4 billion years before Swift's historic detection of it.

Swift may be an "old dog" in terms of space telescopes, but that doesn't mean it isn't capable of learning new tricks. 

In September of 2023, for instance, NASA revealed the spacecraft had detected a black hole in a galaxy located around 500 million light-years away, repeatedly nibbling on a sun-like star. The event was named Swift J0230, and its observation was made possible by a new way of analyzing data from the satellite’s X-ray Telescope (XRT). This represented a completely new era of Swift science that astronomers hope can soon be resumed.

"Swift's hardware, software and the skills of its international team have enabled it to adapt to new areas of astrophysics over its lifetime," Phil Evans, an astrophysicist at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and longtime Swift team member, said last year. "Neil Gehrels, the mission's namesake, oversaw and encouraged many of those transitions. Now, with this new ability, it's doing even more cool science."

Scientists will undoubtedly be eager to see this pioneering space telescope resume operations and see what new high-energy aspects of the universe it will reveal next.

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Robert Lea
Senior Writer

Robert Lea is a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.’s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.