NASA: Hubble is back online and already at work

Chris Davies - Jul 19, 2021, 12:13pm CDT
NASA: Hubble is back online and already at work

Hubble is back online and back examining the mysteries of the universe, with NASA confirming that its repairs last week have restored the iconic space telescope to scientific operations. After weeks offline, a potentially risky fix was attempted on Friday, July 16, with current and past Hubble team members stepping up to rescue the instrument.

The first signs of a problem came in mid-June, when Hubble’s payload computer – responsible for managing telescope operations – unexpectedly shut down into its protective safe mode. NASA attempted to reboot the system, but it refused to play along.

Launched in 1990, Hubble is reliant on an aging computer rig that NASA first developed in the 1970s. Although archaic by modern measure, it’s nonetheless been sufficient to power the telescope through more than three decades of galactic observation. However, like all systems, there’s the potential for components to wear out, go glitchy, and fail altogether.

That, the Hubble team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center concluded, was what had happened here. The space telescope had been operating on a computer system – known as the Science Instrument and Command & Data Handling (SI C&DH) – installed in 2009 as part of Hubble’s final physical servicing mission. In particular, it’s the Power Control unit (PCU), responsible for ensuring a steady voltage supply to the payload computer, which was deemed to be faulty.

The good news was that there was a whole second SI C&DH unit onboard, complete with a second PCU, which Hubble could switch over to. The bad news was that switchover itself was a potentially risky maneuver, affecting systems not only on the telescope but the spacecraft itself. After several days of formal reviews and planning, NASA decided to go ahead with the swap.

That went to plan on Friday, with NASA confirming that the backup hardware was working as expected. Over the weekend, meanwhile, Hubble resumed scientific work. “NASA has returned the science instruments on the Hubble Space Telescope to operational status, and the collection of science data will now resume,” NASA confirmed. “This will be the first science data collected since the payload computer experienced a problem on June 13, which placed the instruments in a safe configuration and suspended science operations.”

Those observations which Hubble had been scheduled to undertake over the past month or so will be rescheduled later on, NASA confirms. Although the space agency is readying Hubble’s de-facto replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, for launch later this year, however, there’s still plenty of time for the existing telescope to unlock new details.

Indeed, the current expectation is that Hubble can last through the 2030s, assuming any other hardware glitches can be similarly worked through. Addressing that this time saw both current Hubble team members and some of their former teammates collaborating to bring the space telescope back online.

“Hubble is an icon, giving us incredible insight into the cosmos over the past three decades,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement on the fix. “I’m proud of the Hubble team, from current members to Hubble alumni who stepped in to lend their support and expertise. Thanks to their dedication and thoughtful work, Hubble will continue to build on its 31-year legacy, broadening our horizons with its view of the universe.”

You can find what Hubble is currently observing at the Space Telescope Live site.


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