Hubble 'scope camera breaks down amid US govt shutdown, forcing boffins to fix it for free

Remote fix hoped for orbiting robo-eyeball

eagle_nebula
Hubble's photo of the Eagle Nebula dubbed the Pillars of Creation. Image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Updated The main camera on NASA’s beloved Hubble Space Telescope is right now out of order due to a hardware glitch, the space agency confirmed this week.

“At 1723 UTC on Jan 8, the Wide Field Camera 3 on the Hubble Space Telescope suspended operations due to a hardware problem,” NASA officials said in a short statement. That camera has snapped most of the 'scope's famous pictures of space, though right now its optical and ultraviolet channels are unexpectedly kaput.

It’s not a great time for a malfunction, considering 95 per cent of NASA employees are on involuntary unpaid leave as America is in the midst of a partial government shutdown: President Trump is refusing to sign the paperwork to fund the federal government until Congress agrees to build a stupidly expensive fence along the Mexican border for him. Until that tantrum is over, 800,000 US government employees – from food and aircraft inspectors to coast guards and national park workers – are either at home without pay, or working for free, depending on whether their job is deemed essential.

During this shutdown, a skeleton staff remain at the space agency, albeit unpaid, maintaining active missions, such as Hubble, and are thus trying to sort out a remote fix for the glitch. In the meantime, the space 'scope is still making observations using its working instruments.

The ol' trusty telescope also suffered a setback in early October last year, when one of its gyroscopes span out of control. NASA sent it into sleep mode, and it was rebooted three weeks later after a backup gyroscope replaced the busted one.

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Named after the American astronomer Edwin Hubble, the veteran telescope has been cranking away for more than quarter of century since it was launched in 1990. It was expected to operate for 15 years. The device has outlived the Kepler Space Telescope, which sputtered the last of its fuel last year. NASA quickly ushered in its successor, TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), and it has already found three new exoplanets in its first three months in operation.

Hubble has snapped iconic pictures of various weird and wonderful objects in space, like the Eagle Nebula shaped like fingers made out of gas and dust, or the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field capturing light across different wavelengths emitted by stars and galaxies.

Unfortunately, mankind no longer has a spacecraft capable of reaching Hubble and carrying out repairs, so if the Wide Field Camera 3 – the telescope's primary visible-light imaging instrument – is truly knackered, it's a massive blow for the telescope. ®

Updated on January 11

This article was revised after publication in light of new information today from NASA, which stressed in a statement: "Hubble operations, like other satellite operations, are excepted activities as defined in the NASA furlough/shutdown plan. The current partial government shutdown is therefore not expected to have an impact on the recovery of the instrument to normal operations."

The team went on with more detail on the cockup:

Shortly after noon EST on Jan. 8, software installed on the Wide Field Camera 3 detected that some voltage levels within the instrument were out of the predefined range. As expected under those conditions, the instrument autonomously suspended its operations as a safety precaution.

A team of instrument system engineers, Wide Field Camera 3 instrument developers, and other experts formed and quickly began collecting all available telemetry and onboard memory information to determine the sequence of events that caused the values to go out of limits. This team is currently working to identify the root cause and then to construct a recovery plan. If a significant hardware failure is identified, redundant electronics built into the instrument will be used to recover and return it to operations.

As we noted, there are other sensors on-board that are still working in the meantime: the Advanced Camera for Surveys, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph. ®

Updated to add on January 17

The Hubble camera is back up and running. The problem appeared to be incorrect voltage levels being read by the telemetry system, causing the telescope's software to shut the device down. NASA boffins were able to confirm voltages were normal, and after rebooting various components, the camera was brought back online.




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