CNN is reporting that NASA is delaying the upcoming Hubble servicing mission till at least next year. The data handling and communications system has failed, so the telescope has stopped sending down data. This obviously needs to be fixed, but with the launch scheduled for two weeks from now, there is no time for the astronauts to practice doing the repair. The astronauts spend months and months of time training to do repairs (in the very nifty Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory), and you can’t just say “Oh, while you’re up there, do you mind putting a bit of duct tape over here? Thanks much!”. The repair process needs to be designed as well. NASA thinks they can get a backup control channel working in a few weeks, in which case more data can come down in the interim. On the other hand, there’s no plan for observations during the coming year — the plans were all based around instruments that were supposed to be up there by late October, but that are instead going to be sitting in a clean room.
Another bit of fallout is that before this happened, the EVA (extra-vehicular activity) schedule was extremely tight, with a good chance that either the ACS or STIS repair would have to be scrapped if even the slightest activity went slower than planned. If you stick in a computer repair as well, I think the odds that we’ll get either instrument in are way down. On the other hand, the teams who work on these missions are vewwwwwwy, vewwwwwy clever, so who knows.
Oh, and yet one more awful thing is the havoc this plays with budgets. In large missions like these, time is money. There are hundreds of people supporting the repair mission in various ways, and while they’re critical to its success, the budgets were not anticipating having them working on repair issues during the next year.
The only bright spot is that this failed before the launch. If they had gone up there, installed all the fancy new hardware, and then had the data transfer system fail, we’d be well and truly hosed. But to dim that bright spot again, there are a number of ancient systems on the telescope (gyros, thermal blankets, etc) that are essential to keeping the spacecraft healthy. They’re scheduled for repair as well, and one can only hope that they can last another year.
And I suppose the post I was going to write crowing about how I get to go to the launch is tabled until next year too…
Update: Steinn has a lot more details over at his place.