Earlier today ESA has published an update about the Gaia commissioning after one month of operations in the orbit around the Lagrange point L2. Please read the blog post here: http://blogs.esa.int/gaia/2014/02/12/one-month-at-l2/.
Several important systems and subsystems of the satellite were already tested – among them the Micro Propulsion System (MPS), the Phased Array Antenna (PAA) for the downlink of the data and all of the 106 CCDs in the focal plane. All these systems are working now as expected.
One unexpected feature seen in the test observations are temporary high background signals due to stray light. This stray light is entering the telescope openings in the thermal tent around the payload and reaches unfortunately the focal plane with the CCDs. This is obviously an unwanted issue as it influences the error budget of some measurements.
How is it possible that stray light can enter the telescope openings? Several theories were discussed, the leading theory is that light from the Sun is the origin of the stray light as this light shows a periodic behaviour in agreement with the 6 hour spin period of the satellite. Gaia has a sunshield supposed to protect the payload from the Sun light all the time. Is something wrong with the sunshield? The favoured explanation of the experts is that light from the Sun is diffracted at the edges of the sunshield – sometimes unfortunately towards the telescope openings. There it enters the payload module, is reflected on the wall of the thermal tent and reaches somehow the focal plane. 10 mirrors, some more optical elements and other reflective components are installed inside the thermal tent. The very complex analysis of the situation is still ongoing.
Nevertheless, there is already a solution for this issue under preparation. The orientation of Gaia towards the Sun will be changed a little bit. The inclination of the spin axis in relation to the Sun will be moved from 45 deg to 42 deg to reduce the chances of diffraction of Sun light on the edges of the sunshield. This manoeuvre is planned for early next week after some intensive planning. The experts of ESA, Astrium and our DPAC payload experts group are waiting eagerly to analyse the data collected after this manoeuvre is executed – hopefully with the expected positive result of lower background levels in the images.
The commissioning (testing) of Gaia will be ongoing for a few more months. Many things still have to be optimized and calibrated to allow the high-precision measurements of the nominal observations during the next 5 years or more.
Note: If you have comments or questions please let me know. I may be able to give some replies in the comment section! 😉