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Engineers successfully restored the vision of the Euclid spacecraft nearly 1 million miles from Earth after a layer of ice formed over its “eyes,” potentially preventing it from uncovering the secrets of the dark Universe. 

The European Space Agency’s Euclid spacecraft launched in July from Florida to create a 3D map of the Universe and seek out the origin of the accelerating expansion known as dark energy. However, months into the mission, ESA scientists noticed the spacecraft had blurred vision. Teams determined that a thin layer of ice was likely frozen on Euclid’s visible-wavelength camera known as the VISible instrument (VIS) – essentially its eyes.

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A collaborative response team created a plan to de-ice the spacecraft in orbit using the onboard heaters to slowly increase the temperature of some parts of the spacecraft, beginning with the mirrors. The plan was considered high risk and high reward because if the instruments became too warm, it could change Euclid’s vision forever, but if it worked, Euclid would be back to hunting dark energy. 

ESA engineers revealed this week that the plan worked better than they had hoped. After the first mirror was warmed by just 34 degrees, ESA said Euclid’s vision was restored. The team said that they received 15% more light from the Universe almost immediately. 

“It was an enormous team effort over the last months to plan, execute and analyze the heating of selected mirrors onboard Euclid, resulting in the fantastic result we see now,” said Ralf Kohley, Euclid Instrument Scientist and in charge of the anomaly review board.

This first test allowed the team to see where the ice had formed and where it could form again. 

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“We expect ice to cloud the VIS instrument’s vision again in the future. But it will be simple to repeat this selective decontamination procedure every six to twelve months and with very little cost to science observations or the rest of the mission,” said Reiko Nakajima, VIS instrument scientist.

Teams continue to analyze the first test’s results but expect this process to become part of operating Euclid through its six-year mission. 

According to the ESA, what engineers learn from Euclid’s ice problem could help future spacecraft. Water released from spacecraft and freezing is a common issue in space. 

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