Friday, October 17, 2008

Hubble limping along

One of the advantages of being at a conference in Baltimore is that we are just a few blocks from the Hubble Space Telescope's home, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI).

This week, STScI is trying to recover Hubble from its recent troubles. As a reminder, the computer on Hubble that prepares and sends the pictures back to Earth failed about 3 weeks ago. Hubble has a spare on board, but it took time to develop plans to bring that online. Those plans were approved this week, and the changeover began. We've been getting updates on this changeover from Institute scientists throughout the week,

The changeover is not going as smoothly as would like. The spare computer (which has been turned off for 19 years!) booted up, but has since shut down due to a problem. We don't know why yet, but scientists are working on diagnosing the problem.

Two of Hubble's three main cameras are also having some problems. The power supply to an ultraviolet camera is acting up, and the cooling system to the infrared camera is also acting up. The engineers don't think these are related, but diagnosis is ongoing.

In the meantime, Hubble is actually working. The Fine Guidance Sensors, which tell Hubble where it is pointing, have also proven useful for science in the past several years. These sensors can actually detect the wobble of stars in the sky due to Earth's motion around the sun. These sensors don't use the broken data computer to talk to Earth, so all of the approved science using those sensors is being done now, while the other problems are being troubleshooted.

As I said before, Hubble is not completely broken. But it is limping along, and it is unclear how well we can fix it before the upcoming Hubble servicing mission next spring. It is quite possible that, with a few more weeks of troubleshooting, Hubble will be back to work with its full complement of cameras. In a worst case, it will have to just use its Fine Guidance Sensors for science until the repair mission.

Best of luck to the Hubble scientists and engineers as they continue to struggle with Hubble!

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