Awful Hubble News

By Julianne Dalcanton | September 29, 2008 3:01 pm

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Technology
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  • Kuas

    BFD. Advances in adaptive optics have almost made it obsolete anyways.

  • http://darwin.gruts.com/weblog/ Richard Carter, FCD

    I suppose it could have been worse: the data handling and communications system could have failed after the service mission.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    Kuas — Not even close. AO is good for some things (is that one lump or two? is that a disk or a point?), but precision photometry is very very difficult (compared to the stability of space), and you can’t work at optical wavelengths. There’s also no UV sensitivity from the ground at any spatial resolution. I’m not saying AO is bad/useless — just that it’s very limited in the things it can do well.

  • JohnR

    I find this just another lie by NASA who has wanted an excuse for years now to kill off the hubble

    With the stealing and billions of dollars NASA has taken from us taxpayers and 50 years later we still are just flying an airplane at higher distances then a normal plane

    I do not believe they ever landed man on the moon and are now fronts for Europes space agency.

    NASA should be killed off and let the common man make it possible to travel to the stars for when NASA spends over 500 million dollars to scrape dirt for 4 months on mars and cannot even do that right it is time to get rid of them and most of their employees that are even Americans.

    All I can recall of NASA is a woman wearing a diper going to Texas to kill off her married boyfriend’s lover and 6 million dollar portapotty.

  • chuko

    Maybe we could ask the Chinese to please fix it for us.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Can the shuttle capture the hubble, bring it back to Earth, and have normal humans fix it, upgrade it, and relaunch it on a normal rocket?

    Costwise, how would that compare?

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  • Roman

    bring it back to Earth

    Re-entry with that much additional weight – wouldn’t this even be possible?

  • Kai Noeske

    Lab Lemming: I think the issue are 2 flights instead of 1, at a 1/700 economy-bailout pricetag (I recall a shuttle flight is a billion, ballpark), and it means twice the risk for crew and shuttle. This risk is very non-zero, I read something like a 1/60-1/80 chance of total loss; this is worse than flights to the ISS due to a higher density of space debris on the way to Hubble. Not an expert, just parrotting what I recall from the news. But yes, this way they could give dear Hubble a much-deserved total makeover, and we could all line up to hug and love it.

    Kuas: adding to Julianne’s points, Hubble is very sensitive to faint sources. This is because of its high resolution – all the light goes into one tiny sharp spot, which means high contrast – and in the near infrared the absence of the atmosphere: you get rid of much thermal and non-thermal atmospheric background. It is very hard to push even a 10m telescope on the ground to the same sensitivity as Hubble just because of that issue – let alone to push a TAC to allow you to expose forever . Plus, Hubble can survey substantial areas with its sizeable field of view, while AO still has a quite limited corrected field. For any deep survey of the distant Universe, you want sensitive infrared, that’s why everyone is having wet dreams about the new WFC3.

  • Kai Noeske

    Roman: very good point. I did not even think that far. Do you know more about this?

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com Lab Lemming

    Why can’t you relaunch on a normal rocket- and at the same time, put it in a better orbit (for observational purposes).

  • Brad Holden

    There is an interesting NYT article here.

    I am going to admire Kai saying “sizeable field of view” and “Hubble” in the same sentence (and have that sentence be correct!)

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben

    Apart from all the financial reasons why HST could not be retrieved and relaunched, I suspect that it would be difficult (not impossible) to fold it back up – mostly the solar panels, and possibly internal moving parts – and pack it to guarantee that it would survive the trip back; you’d have to rebuild a lot of the telescope once it was down here.

    And I think it actually would be impossible to get it down to Earth and back up without an unacceptable level of contamination, which would then outgas and cause all sorts of problems. Yes, everything on Hubble started from Earth, but it went from a clean room to the launch vehicle to orbit.

    I suspect a real accounting would show that it is always cheaper to build and launch a new thingy than to retrieve and relaunch one.

  • dio

    Strangely, there is no updates in the STScI site, however here
    there is an updated information:
    “Replacing the 136-pound (62-kg) data formatter box should be relatively straightforward for Atlantis’s crew, requiring about two hours during one of the mission’s five back-to-back spacewalks to perform…”
    Regarding the adaptive optics on the ground-based telescopes and the HST, there is a nice
    page, or
    PDF document. The major conclusion is: “Ground-based telescopes are an essential tool for astronomy, but will not
    surpass Hubble’s optical imaging performance by 2015.”
    What is surprising to me is that there is no discussion in the astronomical community concerning the future optical-UV replace of the HST. I am aware of only one project the WSO/UV, which appears to me inferior to the HST with its 1.7 meter primary mirror diameter.

  • Ed

    Roman:

    Re-entry with that much additional weight – wouldn’t this even be possible?

    Yes, it must be possible. Hubble was launched on the Shuttle and they must have had the option to re-enter with it still on board in case there was a problem with deployment.

    Back in the days when they used the Shuttle to launch multiple satellites they took care to release them in the right order so if the second (or third?) failed to deploy after the first (or second?) had been released the centre of gravity would be in the right range for re-entry and landing. If the first had failed to deploy then it would have been, literally, suicidal to attempt to release the second.

    Concerns about folding it up (particularly the replaced solar panels – remember that the panels on it now are not the ones which folded out after its initial release from the Shuttle) and issues of contamination sound very real to me, though.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Last summer I watched Niel DeGrasse-Tyson’s program on PBS “Science Now” which went through what was required to make this repair. In a word it appears that the repair job amounts to fixing a Swiss watch while wearing welder’s gloves. There is also only one chance to do it. The main camera’s circuit board needs to be replaced, and if done on Earth it could be done without so much as a sneeze of a problem. In orbit the astronauts need to remove these small screws, they can’t lose any of them for it might rattle around the optics and damage them, remove the malfunctioning board or data module, insert the new one and replace the panel enclosure with the screws. The whole operation must go flawlessly.

    The astronauts are being trained up so that mental decisions, body motions, and technology operate perfectly according to a script. It looks as if anything that could go wrong could hex the Hubble Telescope for good. I am not privy to the inside information on this, but maybe there needs to be reconsideration of the whole protocal.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Count Iblis

    Why not put a telescope on the ISS?

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    There are a number of reasons why that can’t happen. The biggest is that the orbits are too different. The energy for nonHohmann orbital changes which change the angular momentum of the orbit is large. The shuttle would have to loft a fairly large rocket engine to do this, with all types of payload configuration issues which would have to be worked in orbit. There were plans to loft a Delta motor in the shuttle, but it was realized this amounted to putting a bomb on the shuttle. The program was scapped.

    The Hubble could not be attached physically to the ISS. The ISS is a large multi-mode vibrational structure, which would prove to be horrible.

    Bringing the Hubble back to Earth is not likely either. The flight dynamics of the ship would be very different and more difficult with a large payload on board. It would be a very risky venture.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://www.mpe.mpg.de/~erwin/ Peter Erwin

    … The astronauts are being trained up so that mental decisions, body motions, and technology operate perfectly according to a script.

    I think they’re also well-trained to deal with snags and failures, and to come up with on-the-spot solutions if that’s possible. There have been a number of cases (certainly with ISS construction, if not with previous HST missions) where astronauts have had alter plans in mid-mission and come up alternative approaches. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if missions which went exactly as planned were the exception rather than the rule, and that the astronauts are well aware of this.

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