Hubble Back to Work This Weekend, NASA Says

Rebecca Carroll
for National Geographic News
October 23, 2008

The Hubble Space Telescope could resume scientific observations as early as this weekend, NASA officials said Thursday.

The 18-year-old spacecraft has not gathered data since September 27, when its data formatter, which sends information back to Earth, stopped working.

Last week NASA engineers put several key Hubble computers and all of its scientific instruments into safe mode so the team could switch to a backup formatter.

Although the data formatter turned on, it mysteriously reset after a matter of hours, as did a backup computer used to manage Hubble's suite of cameras and other instruments.

The glitches had engineers scrambling to find the source of the problem.

Art Whipple, lead systems engineer for Hubble at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said the resets occurred after what appears to be a momentary electrical short or open circuit in the backup computer.

"Events of these kinds are not uncommon in electrical components that have been powered off for a period of time," Whipple said. "There does not appear to be any permanent damage."

However, he did not rule out further complications.

"Obviously, having had this occur once, we recognize that it could happen again," he said today during a teleconference.

"This is the first time we've turned [the backup formatter] on in 18 years, and we'll have to see how that goes."

Back to Business?

The engineers today switched on the backup computer, which tells instruments such as cameras and gyroscopes what exposures to take, when to take them, and when to move filters.

Now the team is back to the point they were at last week, before the apparent electrical malfunction and an unrelated software problem in one of the satellite's most used cameras.

Engineers will monitor the computers for the next few days, and they hope to bring one of the telescope's wide-field cameras back up early Saturday morning.

"It starts doing science almost immediately," Whipple said of the camera.

Afterward, the camera with the software problem and several other instruments should be up and running by later next week.

The technical problems have postponed a space shuttle mission to repair and add to Hubble, originally scheduled for mid-October.

Jon Morse, NASA's astrophysics division director, said the agency will determine next month whether to set the new shuttle launch date for February.

"The shuttle program clearly needs a lot of advance notice," he said.

SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES

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