NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is damaged, and the organisation is struggling to comprehend the workhorse observatory’s most significant problem in almost a decade.
Hubble abruptly shut down on June 13th, as astronomers were using the 31-year-old observatory to study pulsing stars 200 million miles distant.
NASA is trying to understand what went wrong on the orbiting telescope, without which hundreds of astronomy investigations had to be put on hold or canceled. At stake are efforts to understand galaxies, comets, stars, exoplanets and the entire universe.
Engineers have tried to restart the $1.5 billion telescope, which is about 43 feet long — the length of a typical school bus — and was named for astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble, who made a number of important discoveries before he died in 1953.
The team is preparing techniques to switch on secondary regulators that control data and power, NASA’s astrophysics director Paul Hertz said in an interview. A failed piece of hardware on those regulators is the likely culprit, he said.
“Pretty much everything on Hubble, with some exceptions, is fully redundant, meaning there is a backup if something fails,” Hertz said. “We can’t say for sure exactly what is wrong, but we think it’s a failure on a component that we’re trying to isolate.”
He said a solution is “likely,” but he acknowledged there’s a small possibility a fix from Earth isn’t possible.
A team of about a dozen people at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland will test procedures to safely turn on backup components, which Hertz said is complicated due to the remote nature of the work and Hubble’s suite of delicate high-tech instruments.
NASA does not have a spacecraft designed to service Hubble, which was deployed by space shuttle Discovery in 1990, Hertz said. The telescope orbits the Earth about 340 miles high, or roughly 80 miles higher than the International Space Station.
In 2008, NASA executed a similar repair on Hubble by turning on backup components. Then, on a last shuttle mission in 2009, crew installed new backup equipment.
Because the precise nature of the problem is unknown, the agency cannot forecast how long it will take to resolve. While other telescopes can do some astronomy, Hubble is unique. It can make clear observations up to 15 billion light-years distant, which is considerably above the capabilities of any existing orbiting observatory.
NASA planned that Hubble would collaborate with the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in November.
The agency describes the new, more powerful telescope as a successor, not a replacement, for Hubble. That’s because Hubble sees in optical light, while the James Webb telescope will see the universe in infrared light and be able to look a few hundred million light-years farther than Hubble.
According to astronomer Adam Reiss, Hubble has enabled groundbreaking astronomy.
“We were in the middle of observations of pulsating stars when it stopped working,” Reiss explained. He is a space studies professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
“It was obviously concerning,” he added, “but we are confident NASA will get it back up and running.” “Hubble’s kind of a cat with nine lives, so to speak.”
Hubble’s achievements include studies of supernovae that enabled Reiss and Australian scientist Brian P. Schmidt to explain the expansion of the universe, for which they were given the Nobel Prize.
“Hubble was absolutely critical in making some of those measurements,” Reiss said. “It is sort of irreplaceable, and we’re really hopeful that we’ll get it back.”
Canceled projects that may be rescheduled include observations of young stars, studies of galaxy centers that were to occur every other day for six months to determine variations in light and observations of the comet 288P to determine if it is a triple comet, NASA spokeswoman Alise Fischer said.