NASA Hurries to Repair Hubble

Anne Minard
for National Geographic News
October 14, 2008

The Hubble Space Telescope could be up and running again as soon as Friday morning, officials said today at a NASA press conference.

The 18-year-old spacecraft has been mum since September 27, when its data formatter, which beams information to Earth, suddenly failed.

On Tuesday NASA announced a detailed plan to remotely send Hubble into "safe mode," a sort of shutdown, and switch temporarily to a backup data formatter that is already on board.

Art Whipple, lead mission systems engineer for Hubble at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said up to 50 scientists will be working "24/7" to tackle the problem.

"It is a complicated procedure and it is one we have not done end-to-end before," he said.

Scientists hope to receive Hubble's first data in weeks when the telescope is powered back up on Thursday. If all goes well, Hubble should be transmitting normal volumes of data by Friday morning.

The failure of Hubble's data formatter led to the cancellation of the space shuttle Atlantis servicing mission, originally slated for October 10. That mission will now wait until at least February.

No Backup

The switch to the second onboard formatter, called side B, leaves Hubble with no backup should that device fail.

Plus, side B has been exposed to the same cyclic heat stress over the life of Hubble that may have ruined side A, Ed Weiler, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in late September.

But the risk will probably be temporary.

A complete replica of Hubble's formatting system has been stored on Earth since the telescope was launched in 1990.

Engineers will begin testing that unit next week in the hopes of flying the boxy, 135-pound (61-kilogram) instrument aboard the servicing mission.

The exact timing of that mission will rely on the results of the first tests of the duplicate formatter, Whipple said. The team is likely to know more in early November, he said.




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