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Efforts to address on-orbit damage to the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER)

Presentation #500.02 in the session Missions & Instruments.

Published onMay 03, 2024
Efforts to address on-orbit damage to the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER)

On May 22, 2023, NASA’s NICER X-ray astrophysics payload on the International Space Station suffered damage due to orbital debris: a number of thin-film filters that block visible and infrared light from entering the X-ray Timing Instrument’s optical bench were punctured. The XTI’s detectors are susceptible to light-loading, so that during orbit daytime the new “light leak” produces electronic noise and triggers detection “events” that are indistinguishable from low-energy X-ray photon interactions; these effects ultimately mask signals of astrophysical origin and often saturate the payload’s internal telemetry capacity. During orbit night, however, the XTI operates nominally and continues to produce excellent data and high-quality science measurements. This presentation describes the damage to the instrument, its characterization, and operational changes that were implemented to mitigate the impact to daytime data collection and to optimize scheduling of science investigations. Soon after the light-leak was diagnosed, the NICER team entered into discussions with ISS management and technical teams about the possibility of patching the damaged optical-blocking filters to recover as much of NICER’s daytime functionality as possible. As of this writing, two approaches to a potential NICER repair are under consideration: an effort that utilizes ISS robotics, and one that would involve an astronaut spacewalk. In either scenario, a dedicated patch kit would be launched to ISS on a scheduled resupply flight, and the potential repair would take place in the second half of 2024. This presentation will provide a status update on these plans.

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