What’s Wrong with NASA’s Giant Telescope?


The iconic Hubble telescope has been operating for 31 years and has given us some of the most spellbinding insight into space. But, for two weeks now, the Hubble has been out of order, and NASA’s top engineers are working hard to get it up and running once again.

You can understand that even technology as advanced as the Hubble is prone to having some hiccups now and then. Over the years, the Hubble has been upgraded and maintained, with the latest NASA technology regularly being integrated into its software and hardware. Occasionally, things go wrong, and the problem is quickly diagnosed and fixed so that it can resume operations. But, this particular instance has even the brightest in the industry completely puzzled.

The present issue revolves around the telescope’s payload computer, which has the important task of managing the scientific instruments on the spacecraft. Further, it has the incredibly significant task of transmitting data to Earth. The issue was noticeable right away as this key component informs scientists on Earth that the telescope is working. When the payload computer goes out, the signal informing scientists that “all is well” disappears. Once this occurred, the instruments that the computer manages abruptly entered safe mode.

Efforts to address the issue may sound familiar. First, the team tried turning the computer on and off again, but that didn’t help. Then, it was assumed that it was an issue within the memory module, and so one of the three backup modules was activated. Still, the problem persisted. From there, the backup payload computer was turned on, which did nothing to alleviate the issue.

One problem is that the payload computer was installed in 2009, back when the Hubble had its last servicing mission. This installation included its backup programming, meaning that all technology pertaining to the payload computer is 12 years out of date. And, just as we know with our own devices that we use daily, 12 years is a long time in the technological world. However, in NASA’s defense, the Hubble is 31 years old, as is much of its software, and it continues to be one of the most instrumental components of NASA’s operations.

Investigation Underway

It’s been two weeks since the Hubble was fully operational, and this has NASA’s team scrambling – so much so that they have brought in some of its original engineers, who first put the telescope together 31 years ago. It’s clear that the problem lies somewhere in the telescope outside of the actual payload computer itself, and much of the technology within the telescope is simply so old that NASA’s current engineers don’t feel a sense of familiarity when observing it. The good news is that engineers working on the case believe that they have some guesses as to the culprit, which are now being evaluated one by one.

One of the more promising theories is that the issue has to do with the Hubble’s command unit. This is the control panel that sends data and commands directly to the instruments, and then formats this data and sends it to NASA’s team on Earth. Another theory is that there is an issue with the power regulator that delivers voltage to hardware throughout the telescope. Unfortunately, the Hubble was never programmed to communicate this type of voltage issue to its team on the ground, which means that engineers have to develop extremely complex ways to even test whether or not this is the problem.

You can imagine that an instrument as large as the Hubble, which is the size of a bus, makes the process of testing out these theories a bit more drawn out. It’s not unlikely that it will take several weeks for scientists and engineers to test out each potential issue to see whether or not they’ve found the culprit. And, that’s not even covering the length of time it will take to make the necessary repair to get the telescope up and running once again. Of course, there is another obstacle – the Hubble is in space.

The Hubble: Approaching Obsolescence?

Many NASA enthusiasts will quickly bring up that the James Webb telescope is going to be launching in just a couple of months and could therefore act as a replacement for the Hubble. However, NASA’s team will argue that the Hubble will not be obsolete just because of the innovations of the James Webb. Hubble continues to play an integral role in the day-to-day functions of NASA and will keep doing so after the James Webb is launched. Remember that although the Hubble is 31 years old, much of its technology has been upgraded to be modern.

In the meantime, we are fully confident that NASA will determine the issue with the Hubble’s payload computer and that the telescope will be back in operation by the end of the year.

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