Trump’s government shutdown has entered its 19th day (only 3 days to go until it breaks all records), with an estimated 75 percent of government personnel being affected. More than 800,000 people working for federal agencies across all 50 states are not getting paid. National parks are closed, which, with no staff to monitor them, has led to indiscriminate pollution and vandalism. Now, the latest victim of this vain political act is cutting-edge astronomy.
Hubble’s main instrument, the Wide Field Camera 3, suspended operations on January 8 at 5:23pm GMT due to a hardware problem. The WFC3 is equipped with spare parts and hardware to resolve issues such as this, but due to the shutdown, it is unlikely that the fix is coming any time soon.
This doesn’t completely stop operations for the veteran telescope but it significantly reduces its capabilities. It has three other instruments that are still extremely valuable for observing the skies, but without the WFC3 we are losing precious observational capabilities. In a very brief statement, NASA confirmed that the three instruments are continuing operation as normal.
This is the second major fault for Hubble in just a few months, after one of its gyroscopes failed back in October. These instruments are used to turn and lock the telescope onto objects in its sights. The failure of one of them led to three weeks of intense work for the team. They not only successfully repaired it but they also came up with solid plans on how to operate the telescope if it ever goes down to two or even one gyroscopes.
Hubble is, of course, almost 30 years old. Its last servicing mission took place in 2009 by astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which is when the WFC3 and the new gyroscopes were installed, but there have been many replacements since. There have been some suggestions that when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon becomes operational new servicing missions could be possible but there are currently no firm plans to upgrade Hubble.
We hope that Trump’s shutdown is resolved quickly and people are able to go back to work, and we hope that NASA’s engineers can quickly make WFC3 operational again. Despite its age and issues, Hubble continues to deliver groundbreaking science, and this is a testament to the hard work of all the people who have worked on it over many decades.