NASA will try to fix Hubble tomorrow

By Phil Plait | October 14, 2008 5:40 pm

A couple of weeks ago, a component on Hubble failed (read that link for the back story here). This critical piece of hardware controls almost all the scientific instruments on the observatory, so Hubble has been essentially down for weeks.

However, NASA anticipates such things, and when Hubble was built, all critical systems had a redundant set installed. In other words, there is another of these controllers on Hubble, but it’s been switched off since just before launch back in April 1990.

Tomorrow, NASA will start the procedure to turn it back on. This process is tricky, as it involves basically shutting everything down, then restarting it again. It means powering up a piece of hardware that’s had 18 years of napping. And it means several days of painstaking engineering and control, and making sure everything goes according to plan.

It’s entirely possible that Hubble will be up and running by Friday, which is good. The Shuttle mission that was going to service Hubble (installing two cameras and a bunch of other needed parts) has been postponed until next year. They are considering bringing up another controller to replace the dead one; that’s just in case the redundant one breaks down as well (and if they can’t turn on the redundant one, they’ll have to bring one up anyway). Ironically, the launch date was supposed to have been today, but now it won’t be until February at the earliest.

NASA takes Hubble pretty seriously; in many ways it represents NASA itself. I’m glad. Hubble still has many years of peering into the universe ahead of it.

Oh, and if anyone at NASA is reading this: I went to the main NASA site. I went to the Goddard site. And as of the time of this writing, I found no mention of this anywhere, even though the telecon about it was 7 hours ago. On the NASA Hubble page, the last update was from two weeks ago. Maybe I missed it, but news like this should really be on the front page.


Comments (50)

  1. I checked there too, and there is nothing on those sites.

  2. Davidlpf

    18 years of napping how can I get that job.

    I hope they do get things up and running again.

  3. SLC

    Now here is about the only value of manned space flight. Of course, if the US wasn’t spending so much money on manned space flight, it would afford to send several Hubble type telescopes into orbit and would not need to repair the one we have. The fact is that the Hubble telescope has already outlived the time frame projected for it when it was launched and it is currently living on borrowed time.

  4. 18 years sleep ?

    What kind of effect does radiation have on an object that stays this long in space ?

  5. Now here is about the only value of manned space flight.
    Say it ain’t so SLC. I thought the manned space program was entirely wasted?

    Of course, if the US wasn’t spending so much money on manned space flight, it would afford to send several Hubble type telescopes into orbit and would not need to repair the one we have.
    Appropriations committee: “But you already have one?”
    NASA: “Yes, but sometimes they fail and we need a spare.”
    Appropriations committee: “What, you mean they can break down? They cost a billion dollars each and they can break down?”
    NASA: “Everything fails eventually. We build in redundancy however…”
    Appropriations committee: “Why don’t you just repair it?”
    NASA: “We can’t. Not since the manned program was halted.”
    Appropriations committee: “Request denied. We have a limited budget and we need more of those cute little rovers on Mars.”

  6. SLC

    Re Shane

    Mr. Shane is cordially invited to take his comments and deposit them where the sun don’t shine.

  7. Helioprogenus

    Phil, the problem is you’re telling bureaucrats to do something efficiently. By the time this gets to NASA, the James Webb Space telescope will be having back-up systems taking over for the malfunctions in the primary. One of the many problems with NASA, along with the rest of the government is the snail’s pace by which they release information and allow us, the public who foot their bills to be aware of vital news that may be of interest. They feel they’re entitled to inform us when it suits their needs, and we can sit and twiddle our thumbs while they throw around our money on badly managed programs that lack accountability.

  8. Pisces

    I still can’t believe that almost 40 years after landing on the Moon we don’t have a decent frackin’ spaceship!

  9. This is kind of hilarious. Seems that now that NASA may have the Hubble under control, the crapper on the ISS has decided to crap out again. The astronauts are now having to use the Soyuz can until they can fix it. Can’t we just send them a plunger…? (

  10. Why is it that the backup system wasn’t even tested in those 18 years?

  11. zandperl, I think it has been mentioned before but it something like switching over to the backup system requires flicking off the first one. That is inherently risky because you may not get the first one back up again if the back up fails too. Then you’ve buggered it all up for nothing but a test.

  12. Helioprogenus, that’s unfair to NASA. They actually have a large number of press conferences, do press events, send out releases, etc. I get a half dozen a day at least, many of which I wish I could write about! I’m just complaining that they take too long to get the press conferences transcribed or at least summarized and online! Their website has always been a disaster.

  13. SLC: I have had enough of your rude comments. This is your last chance. Shape up, or I will start deleting your comments as they come in, and mark them as spam.

  14. Jose

    Just curious. What happens to people who had Hubble time scheduled during the down time? Is everyone else pushed back, are they rescheduled, or are they just out of luck?

  15. Bigfoot

    Please let us return to the pleasure of a world where Hubble is constant.

  16. false assurance

    If they had TRUE redundancy, they would have had both of these controllers running simultaneously, with a third in there also. They would vote and the majority would rule. That’s how the shuttle’s aerodynamic surfaces are controlled, for instance. There is no excuse for this kind of dumb design. Which tells me it isn’t true. They are covering something up. It wouldn’t take them two weeks to test a backup if the primary had really failed like that. Something smells fishy.

  17. I agree that NASA have been very slow with the updates on the Hubble story! I saw the media telecon advertised and then…. nothing. I missed the briefing so thanks for covering the story!

  18. No news? Now way: a link to this update was distributed on several NASA Twitter channels around 6 p.m. EDT yesterday.


  19. Daniel

    I hope this works…we cant have Hubble down during the International Year of Astronomy. 😉

  20. TheWalruss

    We all know that Hubble is nothing but a Zionist conspiracy orchestrated by the Illuminati to suppress Flat Earthers until the return of L. Ron Hubbard in his cosmic space blimp.

    That being said – I really hope that backup system works! 😮

    I’m glad that Phil keeps us informed of the things the NASA scientists don’t put online – perhaps we should petition Obama for a $50,000 earmark for a new NASA employee who keeps their site updated?

  21. Stein


    This doesn’t consern hubble as such, but the google-ad accompanying this blog showed a funky drawing of a comet entering the earth’s atmosphere and it linked to a website called

    I clicked the link… And was soon waist-deep into doomsday predictions, nostradamus, mayan calendar ends and numerology.

    My point is: What the frak? How did this ad get to “Bad Astronomy”?

  22. gss_000

    @Michael L

    The ISS toilet is already repaired. It was fixed the next day, but only one article actually mentioned this.

    From the article, “New Crew, Space Tourist Arrive at Space Station”:
    “The astronauts arrived at a fully functional space station, which includes a repaired master bathroom inside the outpost’s Russian-built Zvezda service module. The toilet failed last week for the second time this year, but was swiftly repaired a day later, NASA spokesperson Rob Navias said.”

  23. Shane:
    Thanks, I must have missed that.

    Many people’s projects can only be completed at a certain time of the year, depending upon where the sun is compared to their objects. Therefore pushing everyone back could make many projects worthless. It’s my understanding that guaranteed time projects schedule their own observers, so their time gets pushed back as a block, but within their time they schedule who goes when, and that everyone else who is affected is simply dropped from the current round and the people after them are unaffected. The dropped people are encouraged to reapply for more time and typically are given a high priority.

  24. MPG

    So they’re actually going to do what everyone does to fix something electronic – turn it off an on again.

  25. Bob Portnell

    Even if NASA’s webmasters are asleep at the switch, the rest of the world goes on. Reuters had a report on the restart plans up very promptly afterward.

  26. I wonder two things. First, redundant systems are absolutely required in space flight since it’s no small job to get to the object to work on it but are no diagnostics performed on this equipment? I’m not versed in the salient technical details but it would seem wise to turn the backup systems on every so often just to see if they work.

    Second, if Hubble cannot be made operational today, what will that do to the roster of scientists waiting to use it? Will the entire schedule be pushed back? Are there some observations that must be performed at certain times in the Earth’s orbit that might be given priority given the time of year when the observatory comes back online? Are the scientists slated for the winter just out to dry?

  27. Daniel

    There was a response posted the 10th. Guess some missed it.

  28. Ray

    Rather than have off-line backup systems, why doesn’t NASA design systems where the two systems would share time? This would keep both systems “live” and allow for seamless takeover of functions should one of them go down.

  29. (HEARTS)

    I noticed a google advertisement for being displayed on this page, I suggest to put that on the banlist, too.

  30. @Thomas: As someone who is versed in the technical details (albeit not in a space context) – you’re dead on. The way this sort of thing would be handled in earthbound business is to test those redundant systems regularly – in fact, in many cases, it is a standing procedure to switch between them quarterly, monthly, even weekly, and actively use both systems regularly to ensure that they are both working.

    It sounds like very poor design to me to require them to power down the entire spacecraft just to restart the controller. I know that the craft was designed many many years ago, but even at that it seems like it should have been possible to design the craft to be able to switch seamlessly between controllers.

  31. Gary Ansorge

    Backup systems cost money and mass and mass means more expensive to launch. One might also note that Hubble was launched 18 years ago and the tech. used in that device was already at least a decade old. HAving said that, I recall that the Hubble CCD camera was 16 Mega Pixels, far better than anything available to the general public(or at least affordable). When the space shuttle was built, the onboard computers were state of the art and pretty massive. Today, those three computers can be out done by an iPhone. Thus, whatever space craft we build today has an enormous advantage in the mass of the onboard tech. Less mass for the onboard tech. translates into greater payload capacity, which means less cost/lb of payload to orbit. A new Hubble ‘scope could be built today for the same dollars, have more dependable backup and more instruments on board. Unfortunately, as some may have noticed, we’re in a wealth crunch right now and there is little incentive for politicians to implement such a new ‘scope.


    I hope we can get old Hubble up and running for a few more years. Maybe by the time it finally goes down for the last time, we’ll have a new, bigger, better system ready to fly.

    One can only hope,,,

    GAry 7

  32. Cheyenne

    Fingers crossed right now. Come on Hubble!

    “Please let us return to the pleasure of a world where Hubble is constant.”- oh darn I wish I wrote that! H’awesome.

  33. Gary Ansorge

    Don’t know what was bugging slc, but I thought your example was pretty funny.

    GAry 7

  34. Consider that NASA is probably the best run civilian agency we have, and they can’t manage a web page efficently.

    So certainly it makes sense to turn as much of our wealth and control over our lives as possible to the government, since they are so much smarter than us fly-over country dolts.

    Vote Obama! At least he’ll stop this wasteful spending on space projects and divert that money to even less effective parts of the government.

  35. Marsha

    Thomas, anything that was scheduled during the down time will be re-scheduled. Most observations are based on “seasons”. Certain parts of the sky are available in spring, others in autumn and so forth, just like on the ground. If an observation misses its window, it will likely be moved to the next year. Observations are rarely so time-sensitive that they are dropped completely. But if the G0’ould motherships appear at Saturn before the fix is done, we’re out of luck.

  36. Jose

    @false assurance
    There is no excuse for this kind of dumb design. Which tells me it isn’t true. They are covering something up.

    I’m all for a good conspiracy theory, but what could they possibly be trying to cover up by saying a telescope isn’t working?

    On another note, my toiled was backed up last week. I told people it was because my son threw a battery in it, but that was a lie. I was actually hiding a deeper, darker secret. I can’t say too much on that, but it involves jet contrails, an Adolph Hitler clone, and the horrible drug overdose of that guy from Blue’s Clues.

  37. @GSS:
    I’m sure that’s a relief :)

  38. Stark

    Ray, that is indeed a common current design feature in many electronic systems – it’s called hot fail-over. 18 years ago though, it was unheard of and technically unfeasible. While the Hubble is an amazing piece of engineering and was bleeding edge space technology when it was built…. that was 18 years ago.

    Also keep in mind that anything going into space is usually several years behind the bleeding edge of ground based technologies. This is because space is a very unfriendly place to electronics. It poses some serious cooling issues (no convective cooling possible without air after all) and the hard radiation the electronics are exposed to can fry them in short order.

    So, you end up building with several year old tech that has been modified to handle the heating and cooling issues and “hardened” to handle the radiation issues of space flight. Making systems space flight worthy is insanely expensive – namely because you never make more than a few of them (due to the very limited demand for spaceflight worthy items). Each piece of spaceflight hardware is basically an one-off piece of engineering that goes through testing that makes any QA procedures for earth bound equipment look trivial.

    So, while we may look at doing hot fail-over systems in a future space telescope (not sure if the James Webb will have this or not – probably not is my bet though) it was quite simply beyond the realm of technical reality in 1990.

  39. I am a Hubble fangirl. I’m glad they’re fixing ‘er up!

  40. SLC

    Re Phil Plait

    SLC: I have had enough of your rude comments. This is your last chance. Shape up, or I will start deleting your comments as they come in, and mark them as spam.

    OK, fair enough, I will attempt to politely respond to Mr. Shanes’ comment. It appears that Mr. Shanes’ position (and possibly Dr. Plaits’) is that, unless NASA continues to support the manned space program, Congress will cut back on all spending for space activities. If that’s the case, then it would seem that the proponents of space activities are unable to provide a suitable justification for their program. In that event, then, maybe the space program should be curtailed. I don’t believe for a moment that such justifications don’t exist. The value from the spinoffs alone from the space program (e.g. the computer I am typing this comment on) provide, IMHO, a strong argument all by themselves, even without mentioning the enormous scientific achievements resulting from the program over the last 40 years. It’s time that NASA and its supporters make that case!

    My position, and absent the snark, that of Profs. Park and Weinberg is that all of the above would have been achieved if no human had ever gone into space at all. In fact, I would argue that even more spinoffs and even more scientific achievements would have occurred if the funds spent on the manned space program had been spent instead on the various unmanned activities, many of which never got funded due to lack of resources.

  41. Thomas Says: “it would seem wise to turn the backup systems on every so often just to see if they work.”

    Let me tell you a little story in that regard. My first job out of school (slightly after the Earth cooled) was as a flight support contractor to an Air Force satellite program at the Sunnyvale Air Force Station (the “Blue Cube” to all you locals). Our program office was in the older part of the station, which was built in 1957.

    Since there are no windows, every room was equipped with battery powered emergency lighting. It was the job of some poor Airman 2nd Class to walk around the whole building once a month and hit the “Test” button on each of the several hundred units in the facility. I’m sure they considered it some useless busywork that the military is so good at creating. After all, the facility was connected to a high-priority service from the local utility which had never failed in the 20 years the base had been there. Even if it did, there were 50 MW of gas turbine generators ready to take over (which had been idling continuously for 20 years).

    As you’ve probably guessed, one day while I was there the power from the utility failed. I never found out the reason, but it was highly suspicious since the switch that moved the connection from utility to the generators stuck half way so the facility was completely disconnected. As designed, the emergency lighting came on…and then went right off again in less than 30 seconds. The batteries were lead-acid and were all 20 years old. The plates had all oxidized to the point of uselessness. They could power the lamps for the 5 seconds or so of the test, but the larger system degradation went undetected.

    – Jack

  42. Ray Says: “why doesn’t NASA design systems where the two systems would share time? This would keep both systems “live” and allow for seamless takeover of functions should one of them go down.”

    Because most failures are due to the accumulated “power up” time. Once you get past the “infant mortality” phase of electronic failure, components usually settle into a long life of reliability. The real enemy is heat and a couple of decades of operation will cause them to dissipate a lot of it. If you have shared duty (both powered up all the time, which doubles your power budget with no increase in performance), you’ll have two worn out systems when one of them fails. The second failure is sure to come soon after.

    Once you protect against temperature extremes and shield against most of the radiation, space is actually a pretty benign environment for electronic storage. True, your components can be zapped by a cosmic ray while it’s sleeping, but that can happen to the active ones as well.

    – Jack

  43. Trebuchet

    There were a lot of comments at the time of the failure how fortunate it was that it happened just before the shuttle servicing mission was to be launched, instead of just afterward. That’s true. But isn’t it also a good thing that it didn’t happen during the tenure of Sean O’Keefe, who would likely have just axed the program?


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