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Hubble Might Survive. NASA Is About to Try Its Backup Computer

And if it works, NASA might boost Hubble to a higher orbit.

Hubble Might Survive. NASA Is About to Try Its Backup Computer
The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit. NASA / Wikimedia

Hubble is still in a fight for its survival.

However, NASA just completed a system-wide review to evaluate potential factors and risks involved in switching Hubble to its backup hardware, which could go forward later this week, according to a blog post shared on the agency's official website. And this could save the space telescope's life.

In space, you can't hold your breath. But we're doing it anyway.

NASA's long road to recovering Hubble

NASA is still investigating the world-historical space telescope to uncover the initial cause of the payload computer's issue, which initially shut down the entire observatory in June. On Sunday, June 13, Hubble's computer came to a grinding halt just after 4:00 PM EDT, with initial suspicions circulating on a possibly degraded memory module. This was the latest in an increasingly frequent bout of minor and major issues the aging telescope had faced since it began to expand our understanding of the universe after its successful launch in 1990.

Upon realizing the system failure of Hubble, NASA's flight controllers flung themselves into action at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, with attempts to restart the computer. But sadly, it just shut down again the next day, and it remained offline while engineers and scientists continued to work around the clock to bring it back to life. A NASA representative said "there is no definite timeline for bringing the computer back online," according to a Space.com report, but the agency did pursue multiple options to save the space telescope from certain doom.

One of the paths to recovery lies in pivoting Hubble to its backup computer. So on in late June and early July, NASA prepared for and completed test procedures on the space observatory. This involved a multi-day test of steps required to activate backup hardware on the space telescope, which was completed on July 8. And, on July 12, the agency was ready to switch Hubble to its backup computer. But while crossing your fingers is merited, it's important to remember that the agency had already planned to phase out the space telescope in the coming years, with the new James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) slated for launch later this year.

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Hubble could be boosted to a higher orbit

Despite years of heart-wrenching delays, the Webb telescope is widely regarded as the successor to Hubble. But there are a few shortcomings to the forthcoming space observatory, in comparison to its struggling predecessor. For one, the Webb will be stationed much farther from Earth after launch, which means repairing it will take far greater resources and logistical commitments than a quick lift to lower-Earth orbit. Secondly, the James Webb Space Telescope lacks ultraviolet (UV) capabilities, which is why NASA is urging astronomers to submit as many UV-based studies and applications as possible in recent years.

Hopefully, Hubble will come online when NASA activates its backup computer system. If it doesn't then NASA may move Hubble into position for eventual re-entry and burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. But if it does survive the ordeal of Summer 2021, and the world-renowned space telescope completes several more groundbreaking studies, the agency may elect to boost it to a higher orbit, where it may remain as a testament to revolutionary astronomy for decades.

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