Is This The End For The Hubble Space Telescope? Its Computer Has A Memory Problem, Says NASA
Is Hubble still working? The most important space telescope in human history is having computer problems.
Launched into low Earth orbit in 1990, the $2.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope has spearheaded a huge advance and made thousands of profound discoveries.
Its onboard computer stopped working on Sunday, June 13, 2021 and attempts to restart it since have failed.
It’s now in safe mode, reports NASA, as its technicians continue to work on resolving the problem.
NASA tells me it has “multiple options” and is working to find the “best solution” to return the telescope to science operations as soon as possible.
What is wrong with the Hubble Space Telescope?
Its reflecting telescope and 2.4 meter mirror are fine, but not its computer hardware. Shortly after 4 p.m. EDT on Sunday, June 13, Hubble’s payload computer stopped working.
First reported by NASA on June 16 then again on June 18, the space agency revealed that the payload computer—a NASA Standard Spacecraft Computer-1 (NSSC-1) system built in the 1980s—halted on June 13.
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“Initial indications pointed to a degrading computer memory module as the source of the computer halt,” said NASA. “When the operations team attempted to switch to a back-up memory module, however, the command to initiate the backup module failed to complete.” Technicians had another go on June 17, this time on both modules, to get more diagnostic information while again trying to bring those memory modules online. “However, those attempts were not successful,” said NASA.
Hubble has four 64-bit memory modules, three of which are backups.
What has NASA said?
In an emailed statement to me today, NASA said:
“The Hubble operations team is working to solve the payload computer issue onboard the Hubble Space Telescope. The team is working to collect all the data available to them to isolate the problem and determine the best path forward for bringing the computer back to operations. At this time, there is no definitive timeline for bringing the computer back online. However, the team has multiple options available to them and are working to find the best solution to return the telescope to science operations as soon as possible.”
It has been before. Immediately after its 1990 launch it was discovered that its mirror had an aberration causing images to be blurry, so it was visited in orbit by astronauts aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1993. They installed corrective optics. More servicing missions took place in 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2009 to upgrade various components, notably adding the telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3.
However, servicing missions ceased with the retirement of the Space Shuttles in 2011. It’s not clear what orbital vehicle could now be used to visit and fix the Hubble Space Telescope.
However, many fixes can be performed remotely. A few years ago the space telescope experienced a gyroscope failure and on March 8, 2021 it went into safe mode due to an onboard software error that was soon fixed.
What is the Hubble Space Telescope?
A joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency and about the size of a large truck or a school bus, the Hubble Space Telescope is a reflecting telescope with a 2.4-meter mirror.
Launched from Space Shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990, it’s spent the last 41 years using its six cameras and sensors to gather data on, and take spectacular images of, deep sky targets previously beyond the reach of astronomers.
There are larger ground-based telescopes, but their view of the cosmos is limited by Earth’s atmosphere, which blocks infrared and ultraviolet light.
Its most famous image is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, an image of a tiny region of space in the Fornax constellation that shows a staggering 10,000+ galaxies.
Where is the Hubble Space Telescope?
At an altitude of about 350 miles/560 kilometers, the Hubble Space Telescope orbits our planet every 95 minutes.
The Hubble Space Telescope had thought to be able to last beyond 2030. Whether it achieves that—or its present issues prove terminal—the orbiting observatory will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn-up in the mid-2030s.