NASA technicians haven‘t been able to get Hubble space telescope back to work for a week. The telescope has been experiencing computer problems since 13 June. Attempts to resolve them have failed so far.
Most parts of the Hubble are from the 80s and the telescope no longer gets regular maintenance since the space shuttle was chained ten years ago. There are problems more often, but most of the time they are resolved in a few days. So now it takes longer.
On Monday, the on-board computer was tried to reboot, but that didn’t solve the problem. A worn memory module was thought to be the cause. That‘s why it switched to one of the backup memory modules on Wednesday, but it didn’t work either. A new attempt with both memory modules on Thursday came to naught again. The engineers are now trying to “isolate the problem further”.
If remote repair fails, there is another spare on-board computer with its own memory modules. It could solve the problem at once, but it keeps waiting, says Professor of Theoretical Astronomy Vincent Icke. “The equipment is over thirty years old. Those modules have 64 kb of memory. You hardly believe that anymore, today.”
Like astronomers around the world, Icke has used Hubble observations more often, for example to investigate exploding stars. The images that the space telescope has made over the years are invaluable, he emphasizes. “It‘s astonishing, as much as the Hubble contributed to science.”
The Hubble was initially myopic after its launch in 1990, but showed brilliant images of the universe after a repair:
Sooner or later, it’s the end story for the Hubble, which is actually already over its expiration date. Without maintenance, more and more instruments will fail, and the particles from the upper layers of the atmosphere make the telescope slowly fall back to Earth. Depending on the solar activity, which can accelerate that process, the Hubble is expected to return to the atmosphere somewhere between 2028 and 2040.
Meanwhile, the successors of the Hubble are ready. Later this year or early next year, the James Webb Telescope will be launched, but it‘s not quite comparable to the Hubble. The James Webb focuses on a different wavelength and can therefore look even further into the universe.
The Chinese Xuntian telescope, provided for 2024, looks at the same spectrum as Hubble, but it’s still waiting to see what it‘s going to deliver, Icke says.
“It’s best to work with a telescope that has been well tested and calibrated anyway. In observations, three quarters of the work consists of detecting errors. At the Hubble, we know exactly where they are after thirty years.”