Tomorrow NASA engineers will begin a challenging remote-control fix of the malfunctioning Hubble Space Telescope; if all goes well, the Hubble should regain the capacity to send breathtaking stellar images back to Earth by Friday. The breakdown of a data-handling computer two weeks ago left the telescope crippled and unable to send data from its instruments; it also caused NASA to postpone its Hubble upgrade mission from October to sometime next February or so. The delay is costing NASA about $10 million a month, officials said [AP].
The fix requires powering down the entire telescope into “safe mode” and then turning on a backup data-handling system that has never been activated in the Hubble’s 18 years of space flight. Says Hubble manager Art Whipple: “It’s probably not unlike what an IT professional might do with an office network” [BBC News]. While NASA officials say there’s always a chance that the backup system won’t work, they also say they expect everything to go as planned. Says Whipple: “There’s very little ageing that goes on with an unpowered component in space,” he said. “It’s actually a very benign storage environment” [Reuters].
The backup computer will be turned on in a complicated two-day series of commands. But ground controllers have spent the last two weeks determining how to carry out the switchover. “It is a complicated procedure, and it is one we have not done end-to-end before,” Whipple said. “It’s primarily the uniqueness and the length of the commanding that leads us to go through so much preparation and testing” [Florida Today].
NASA officials say that the delayed space shuttle mission to upgrade the Hubble may be able to bring up a replacement data-handling computer, which would give the telescope a fresh backup system to see it through its final years of service. Shuttle mission managers are still studying how adding the relatively straightforward repair tasks will impact the already packed servicing flight schedule [SPACE.com].
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DISCOVER: The Race to Save the Hubble Telescope, a photo gallery of preparation for the upgrade mission