A Computer Glitch Stopped Hubble's Operations. So Far, Restart Efforts Have Failed

Astronomers fear we may be on the verge of saying goodbye to the telescope that changed our view of the universe, seen here in orbit, but it's not time to give up yet. Image Credit: Dog Company CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On June 13, the Hubble Space Telescope's payload computer stopped working, bringing the great instrument's operations to a halt. Several attempts have been made to restart – so far without success – and astronomers are bracing themselves for the possibility this is the end for the telescope that changed our view of the universe.

NASA has revealed only limited information about the Hubble trouble and is close-lipped about the chances of getting it up and operating again. On June 16, the NASA website announced; “After analyzing the data, the Hubble operations team is investigating whether a degrading memory module led to the computer halt. The team is preparing to switch to one of several backup modules.”

Two days later, on June 18, an update reported; “When the operations team attempted to switch to a back-up memory module, however, the command to initiate the backup module failed to complete. Another attempt was conducted on both modules Thursday evening to obtain more diagnostic information while again trying to bring those memory modules online. However, those attempts were not successful.”

The Hubble Twitter account is no more enlightening. Besides tweeting a link to the media release, its most recent update was a Father's day message about Lyman Spitzer, considered the telescope's parent.

Hubble's extreme deep field is assembled from ten years of images of the same area of the sky. Ground-based telescopes could not produce a fraction of this resolution. Image Credit: NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team

Four missions to Hubble fixed problems and upgraded parts of the instruments. However, the last servicing mission took place in 2009 – even that only occurred after a widespread public campaign. At the time the JWST, seen as a replacement for Hubble despite operating largely at longer wavelengths, was expected to come into operation soon, reducing Hubble's importance.

Twelve years later, with the JWST still not launched, optimism about its capacity to fill the void Hubble will leave is much more muted, but there are no plans to extend Hubble's life. Although some hope Hubble could have another ten or even twenty years in it, if a major failure occurs it's unlikely to be revived.

Hubble has survived some scares before, most recently a gyroscope failure before returning to full capacity.

It's hard to believe after 30 years of photographs of mesmerizing beauty and data that has transformed our knowledge of almost every field of astronomy, Hubble was once a by-word for failure and government waste. Delays caused by the Challenger disaster and numerous equipment replacements caused the mission's costs to blow out before Hubble left the ground. Once in space, the primary mirror was revealed to have been polished to the wrong shape. Astonishingly, evidence of the problem had been dismissed, rather than inspiring further checks.

Although some important work could still be conducted, the telescope remained the butt of widespread jokes and derision until corrective mirrors resolved the problem. Since then, however, Hubble has become perhaps the most important single scientific instrument since Galileo’s first telescope. Coming so soon after the collapse of the Arecibo Observatory, its loss would be a major hit to the astronomical community's morale.

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The "Pillars of Creation" is a nebula in the process of being blasted with ultraviolet light from very young hot stars. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

 


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