NASA continues to launch absolutely stunning technology with each passing year, so it’s hard to imagine that such a prestigious team of scientists could be left with hardware that’s about as outdated as your first smartphone. But, the reality is that a good part of NASA’s spending goes into replacing and updating outdated hardware repeatedly to ensure that their technology is safe, effective and capable of meeting the demands of a particular space mission.
And, if you read the news carefully in regard to NASA’s various missions, you’ll know that equipment failures are not totally out of the realm of possibility. In fact, an equipment failure just made headlines this past week, as these things happen, even to a well-funded, expertly guided organization like NASA.
Recent NASA Hardware Failures
Just last month, at the beginning of March, the Hubble telescope ran into some trouble, leading to a headline on March 31 stating that NASA acknowledged that the telescope, now in its 31st year, is simply getting old. On March 7th, the lauded instrument went into “safe mode” due to an error in its software, and it took several days for the team to get it back up and running. During the process of repairing it, they discovered a faulty voltage alarm going off, along with the telescope’s aperture door failing to close when it was supposed to.
It seems, at least according to one NASA spokesperson, that these glitches resulted from attempting to update the software so that it could turn between two scientific targets in a more efficient manner, and the update was performed in order to address an issue with its gyroscope. But, clearly, the attempt backfired, and at the end of the day, aging technology is to blame.
That’s not the first time, however, that old technology led to some disappointments on NASA’s part. In 2018, an amateur astronomer, Scott Tilley, claimed to have spotted a satellite known as IMAGE, believed to have been lost, through noticing its signals. But there was just one problem: IMAGE is so outdated that its signals can’t be so easily traced back to the satellite, because the technology for recording the signals is simply outdated. IMAGE was launched in 2000, and technology has simply evolved so beyond what IMAGE had to offer back in the day that scientists would have to put enormous effort into tracking it. Simply put, the technology that was cutting-edge in 2000 doesn’t even exist anymore.
Updating and Replacing NASA Technology
Like any hardware manufacturer, NASA has to routinely update their technology, or even replace it, on a fairly frequent basis. After all, even advanced technology that seems nothing short of futuristic one year can be embarrassingly outdated just a decade later, as has been demonstrated time and time again. And, given the importance of NASA missions, the organization simply can’t work with old hardware that can fail at a crucial moment, such as an important discovery that informs us on nearby asteroids, or new insight into the atmosphere of Mars.
Of course, the good news for space enthusiasts is that NASA has quite a generous budget to replace and update hardware as needed. There are two main reasons for updating hardware, or simply replacing it.
As Technology Evolves, Past Equipment Becomes Outdated
It may sound like a cliché, but technology is simply evolving at an unprecedented rate. And, NASA has no choice but to keep up. For one thing, outdated hardware can glitch out, as was the case for the Hubble just last month. At the same time, NASA hardware does simply become outdated, in the sense that newer, more advanced technology is constantly being developed that can accomplish more than that which was available to us ten years ago.
For instance, imagine if Curiosity, the current Mars rover, had technology that was decades old. Would we know about the potential presence of water, and the environmental conditions that favor the presence of microbes? Likely not. And, therefore we would be lacking in the information that was required as the entire purpose of the mission.
Just like we need to continually update the operating systems on our phones so that they continue to operate efficiently, while also providing us with more capabilities with our handheld devices, NASA must utilize a good portion of their budget to constantly exceed the last decade’s technological peaks.
Updating and Replacing for Safety
Of course, sometimes technology needs to be updated and replaced specifically for safety purposes. Some glitches can be catastrophic, such as those that are instrumental to the launch of a rocket that is hosting astronauts. NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel has the task of testing technology, both new and old, to ensure that it’s completely safe for astronauts, and should they find even the most seemingly benign glitch, the hardware must undergo some form of an upgrade to ensure that astronauts are at absolutely no risk of serious danger. Sadly, not even NASA is perfect, as we know that some past space missions have had tragic endings. More modern technology actually allows this safety panel to use more efficient safety-checking methods that simply were not available to us years ago.
Overall, as NASA has evolved, it’s outgrown a good amount of its hardware. Fortunately, the organization has the resources need to update and replace hardware as needed so that space missions can continue without a hitch. But, as seen with the Hubble, mistakes happen, even to a team of leading scientists.