NASA embarks on critical Hubble Space Telescope glitch fix


The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope during deployment in 1990.

NASA/Smithsonian Institution/Lockheed Corporation

NASA’s beloved Hubble Space Telescope is facing one of its greatest challenges. A technical glitch has left it in safe mode for over a month, and on Wednesday, NASA said it may have tracked down the source of the issue. As of Thursday, the space agency is trying a new fix.

The telescope has been in service for over 30 years. The Hubble team had been looking at the payload computer — hardware dating back to the 1980s — as the potential source of a memory problem. “A series of multi-day tests, which included attempts to restart and reconfigure the computer and the backup computer, were not successful, but the information gathered from those activities has led the Hubble team to determine that the possible cause of the problem is in the Power Control Unit,” NASA said.

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As with the payload computer, the PCU is part of Hubble’s Science Instrument Command and Data Handling unit. The PCU is responsible for supplying a constant and steady source of electricity to the computer and its memory. Herein lies the possible problem.

“The team’s analysis suggests that either the voltage level from the regulator is outside of acceptable levels (thereby tripping the secondary protection circuit), or the secondary protection circuit has degraded over time and is stuck in this inhibit state,” NASA said.  

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Since the issue cropped up on June 13, Hubble’s science work has been stalled. Hubble is equipped with a lot of backup systems, including a backup PCU. NASA confirmed on Thursday it is now attempting to switch to the other hardware. 

Today, NASA began a switch to backup spacecraft hardware on Hubble in response to an ongoing problem with its payload computer. This will be a multi-day event. If successful, the next step will be for science instruments to be brought back into operation.

— Hubble (@NASAHubble) July 15, 2021

“This will be a multi-day event. If successful, the next step will be for science instruments to be brought back into operation,” NASA tweeted.

There has been concern for the aging telescope, which is a joint project from NASA and the European Space Agency. Hubble’s successor, the much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope, is still here on Earth, waiting for a possible October launch.

Hubble has weathered many technical glitches in its time, and it may yet survive this latest one. The good news is NASA has a plan, and the hope to go along with it.

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