A breakdown aboard the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope will delay the final space shuttle mission to upgrade and repair the aging telescope, which was scheduled to launch on October 14. NASA said today that the malfunction of a command and data-handling system means the telescope is unable to capture and beam down the data used to produce its stunning deep space images for which the Hubble is famous [Orlando Sentinel]. NASA officials said that system can’t be fixed remotely but added that they’re currently trying to activate a backup system.
The space shuttle Atlantis is already on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in preparation for its trip to the Hubble, but NASA says the unexpected glitch may delay the shuttle’s mission until early next year. Whenever Atlantis does fly, NASA may send up a replacement part for the failed component. It would take time to test and qualify the old replacement part and train the astronauts to install it in the telescope, said NASA spokesman Michael Curie. NASA also would have to work out new mission details for the astronauts who have trained for two years to carry out five Hubble repair spacewalks [AP].
The problem arose just after 8 p.m. Saturday when “Side A” of the telescope’s scientific data downlink computer experienced what [Hubble spokeswoman Susan] Hendrix called a “hardware failure.” That side of the computer has been operating reliably since the observatory was launched in 1990. “There is a Side B, and they’re looking at transitioning to Side B,” she said. But the backup hardware hasn’t been switched on in more than 18 years in space, and engineers aren’t certain it will work [Baltimore Sun]. Hendrix says engineers have already started the complicated process of switching over to the backup equipment, and hope to complete the process by the end of this week.
The upcoming mission to Hubble is the fifth and final flight designed to keep the great observatory serviceable. Its batteries and gyroscopes, which are used to point the telescope, are degrading and they now need to be replaced [BBC News]. The astronauts also plan to install two new scientific instruments that will allow the telescope to study faint objects in the distant reaches of the universe; NASA hopes that all the upgrades will keep the Hubble functioning for another five years.
DISCOVER has exclusive photographs of the astronauts preparing for the final Hubble repair mission in “The Race to Save the Hubble Telescope.”