The Hubble Space Telescope is old. It is fast approaching its 31st anniversary of being launched on its mission to study the cosmos, and while 31 years may not seem that long, for a piece of machinery that orbits the Earth, and endures all that it takes to be exposed to space, that It’s very important. long time. It’s worked well for a long time, returning some amazing images and other observations of structures in space, but it’s not going to last forever, and this week it showed its age.
On March 7, Hubble unexpectedly closed its scientific observations. Automated systems that keep track of the spacecraft’s status flipped the switch, putting the telescope in “safe mode” due to what is described as “a software bug within the spacecraft’s main computer.” Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of the weirdness that Hubble’s handlers had to deal with for the last week.
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As NASA explains in a new blog post, the error occurred at approximately 4am EST. When the Hubble team checked the telescope to see what was going on, they discovered that something was wrong in a recent update they made to the spacecraft’s software. The change was supposed to help the telescope remain stable even though one of its gyros was not what it used to be. “[The Hubble team] determined that the upgrade did not have permission to write to a specific location in the computer’s memory, which caused a problem with the main flight computer and subsequently caused the spacecraft to go into safe mode, ”NASA says.
NASA says it is already working on a fix for the software problem and will reverse the changes it made in the meantime so that the telescope can work again. However, when the team was closely examining the spacecraft’s systems, they spotted another problem: Hubble’s self-closing opening door was stuck open. The door is designed to close if the telescope is accidentally pointed at the Sun, as this could damage or destroy some of its most sensitive parts. The team confirmed that the commands and power were reaching the gate motor, but nothing happened. Fortunately, a backup engine is installed for such a failure, and NASA will now use the backup engine instead of the prime mover.
Phew! So that’s it, right? Unfortunately not. As NASA prepared to return the telescope to operating mode, an “unexpected error” appeared in the wide-field camera 3. NASA is not revealing many details about this, but says it will discontinue use of that instrument until can find out what is wrong.
NASA really wants Hubble to stay alive for many more years, and to be honest, the agency really needs it to keep it going. With the incredible delays and cost overruns of the James Webb Space Telescope (thanks to repeated failures and the incompetence of contractor Northrop Grumman), NASA relies heavily on Hubble. Hopefully any issues that arise can be fixed.
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