Hubble's Primary and Backup Computer Just Broke

It seems increasingly unlikely it will survive. The glitches are system-wide.
Brad Bergan

This could be it.

Hubble, the world-renowned telescope that has become synonymous with NASA, is in dire, dire straits. On Friday, the agency announced that both of the legacy telescope's computers — the main payload and the backup one — are suffering from the same glitch.

To be clear, there's still hope for Hubble. But it is a dwindling hope.

Hubble's backup computer has the same glitch

Four days have passed since NASA announced Hubble's worsening condition, and the agency may not make additional announcements in the near future. Director Paul Hertz of NASA's astrophysics division emphasized that NASA's efforts will remain "very deliberate" throughout their ongoing evaluation of the unfortunate computer glitch, according to a tweet from SpaceNews journalist Jeff Foust. Consequently, there's no apparent "quick fix" for the potentially catastrophic issues Hubble has suffered.

The ordeal began on June 13, when a problem with Hubble's payload computer caused the scientific instruments aboard the space telescope to switch into safe mode. NASA then executed tests on June 23 and 24, aiming to restart scientific activities on the space telescope. And, alas, even the backup computer didn't solve the problem, since it had the same error with onboard memory. As of writing, the agency's scientists are trying to approach the problem from other parts of Hubble's hardware. For example, the telescope's power regulator, and its data formatter, which provides precise and consistent voltage to the telescope's electronics, and formats and transmits data, respectively.

"A power regulator ensures a steady constant voltage supply," said the agency in the Friday update. "If the voltage is out of limits, it could cause the problems observed." In the coming days, NASA's best engineers will continue to evaluate the grim crisis, and if they can't repair the two parts mentioned above, they'll give Hubble's backup data formatter and power regulator a shot. These are scary days for the legendary telescope — which has explored the abyssal depths of the universe for 31 incredible years, and even limned the atmospheres of distant planets.

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Hubble's impending demise could be serendipitous

However, Hubble's possible demise could become serendipitous, since NASA's next-gen space-based observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, is due to finally launch later this year. Recent data from Hubble's recent archives helped reveal that the first stars formed when the cosmos was just 250 million to 350 million years old. "Theorists speculate that the universe was a dark place for the first few hundred million years, before the first stars and galaxies formed," said Nicholas Laporte of the University of Cambridge, in an initially embargoed release shared with IE.

However, peering this far back into the ancient universe exhausted the capabilities of both the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, paving the way for the Webb to lift the curtains on empirical frontiers lying even deeper in the history of the very young, post-Big-Bang universe. Hubble has come a long way, and may have still more revolutionary discoveries to share with the human race. But until NASA finds a way, we should probably make our peace with this unprecedented telescope, which forever transformed our grasp of the cosmos.