Hubble Is Still Offline, and Its Time Might Be Running Out

The Hubble telescope could eventually perform an uncontrolled re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.
Chris Young
A picture of Hubble taken during a servicing missionNASA

NASA is working around the clock to fix the Hubble telescope's 1980s payload computer, which is responsible for controlling and monitoring its science instruments, after it shut down due to a faulty memory board on June 13. 

According to a report by a representative from NASA stated that "there is no definitive timeline for bringing the computer back online," though the space agency does have several options it can pursue, including a backup computer.

The most prolific telescope in history has been offline for over a week and attempts to restart it have so far failed.

"Initial indications pointed to a degrading computer memory module as the source of the computer halt," NASA said in a statement.

"When the operations team attempted to switch to a backup memory module, however, the command to initiate the backup module failed to complete."

The latest update NASA has given is of a separate attempt on both memory modules on Thursday, June 17. As with the previous attempt, these "attempts were [also] not successful," NASA said.

Still, NASA did point out that the Hubble telescope's payload computer is "fully redundant," as a backup can be powered up if all other attempts fail.

The telescope was put in safe mode on June 13 to streamline the troubleshooting process and safeguard its hardware, and the US space agency said it will remain in safe mode until the issue is fixed.

In its latest statement, NASA also emphasized that "the telescope itself and science instruments remain in good health."

Hubble could perform an uncontrolled re-entry this decade

Though NASA states that its telescope is in good health overall, the current shutdown highlights the fact that the Hubble telescope is near the end of its operation, after 30 years of glorious service.

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Equipment such as fine-guidance sensors, orientation-maintaining reaction wheels, and the payload computer responsible for the current shutdown were all installed prior to Hubble's launch in 1990, and they have not been replaced, despite NASA carrying out a number of servicing missions to replace other parts over the years.

The high radiation levels at Hubble's orbit altitude of 353 miles (568 kilometers) will invariably cause degradation and eventually result in a permanent outage for the Hubble telescope.

NASA will then have to choose whether to boost Hubble into a higher orbit or perform an uncontrolled reentry into Earth's atmosphere this decade (approximately 2027).

Hubble Is Still Offline, and Its Time Might Be Running Out
The latest Hubble image to be publicly shared by NASA, on June 18, showing the spiral galaxy NGC 3254. Source: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Riess et al.

China recently came in for criticism from the global scientific community due to the fact that it allowed a Long March 5B rocket core, weighing over 10 tons, to come hurtling back to Earth in an uncontrolled re-entry.

NASA is weighing up its options with Hubble, which itself weighs 11 tons. It will want to avoid an uncontrolled re-entry which would have an almost negligible, though still real, probability of damaging property, and even life, on Earth.

As for life beyond Hubble, NASA's James Webb Telescope is seen by many as the great telescope's successor, though a few key differences — namely, its distance from Earth after launch, and its lack of UV capabilities — mean that Hubble's powers will be greatly missed by the scientific community, in the short term at least.

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