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Hubble loses an eye

Analysis points to power supply problems

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One of Hubble’s four science instruments stopped working last week, NASA said on Friday. Engineers are looking into recovery options, but the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) was not slated for upgrade or replacement on any servicing mission.

NASA says it is has convened a team to investigate the outage. Preliminary reports suggest a broken power supply: STIS suffered a similar problem in 2001. The investigators will continue to monitor the problem over the next few weeks, and hope their analyses suggest a way to fix it.

If it can’t be fixed from the ground, it is unlikely it will be fixed at all. Sean O’Keefe, NASA’s chief administrator, has not indicated he is likely to change his mind about the moratorium on Shuttle Servicing missions to Hubble. All flights to Hubble were grounded after the loss of the Shuttle Columbia.

STIS was installed in 1997 to aid Hubble’s search for black holes, and went into suspend mode on Tuesday. It was only designed to operates for five years, so has already exceeded its mission requirements.

The instrument has contributed a huge amount to our knowledge of the universe. Among other things, scientists using STIS have confirmed the age of the universe by finding the coolest (oldest) white dwarf stars in our galaxy; taken pictures of Saturn’s aurora and made the first ever measurements of the chemical make up of the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet.

While STIS is offline, its observation time has been allocated to other peer reviewed projects using the other three instruments. ®

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