Stop me if this sounds familiar; NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is experiencing difficulties that caused it to fall back to safe mode last week. This is, of course, far from the first time Hubble has encountered a glitch. NASA just worked past a similar error earlier this year, and now it is again attempting to repair the aging observatory from the ground.
Hubble reported an error on October 23rd due to a loss of data synchronization messages. Two days later, another batch of messages were lost, causing the instrument to enter safe mode. This is a safety feature intended to preserve data and prevent damage to the telescope while the team on Earth assesses the problem. Currently, the focus of the investigation is on the Control Unit, which is on the Science Instrument Command and Data Handling (SI C&DH) unit. That might sound familiar, too. The issue last time was the power control unit, which is a component on the SI C&DH. NASA’s solution was to swap to the backup SI C&DH, and it would appear that’s where the new issue has originated.
The Control Unit’s job is to provide timing information the instruments need to correctly respond to data requests. Data could be lost due to a malfunctioning Control Unit. NASA engineers are exploring possible workarounds in the absence of additional spare components. One option is to make changes to the flight software that would check for lost messages and compensate without putting instruments in safe mode.
This past week, NASA flipped on an instrument called the Near Infrared Camera and Multi Object Spectrometer (NICMOS), which has been off for more than a decade. Hubble no longer needed it after getting the upgraded Wide Field Camera 3 in its final 2009 servicing mission. With NICMOS online, NASA can generate science data to better understand the issue without risking any vital components.
According to the latest update from NASA, the team has not spotted any lost sync messages since activating NICMOS. NASA will reassess after the weekend, but it will bring the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) back online on Monday if no further sync messages disappear. They will monitor for disruptions and make software changes as needed. This sounds less serious than the error from last spring, but you never know. Anything could spell the end for this senior space telescope.
Currently, Hubble is vital to our study of distant objects because of its sheer scale and location outside the atmosphere. It was only supposed to last a few years, but it’s now more than 30 years old. Even if this issue proves easy to fix, Hubble can’t keep chugging along indefinitely. Luckily, it will be succeeded by the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch later this year. Webb is much more capable than Hubble, at least on paper. It’s got a lot of live up to, though.
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