Hubble Just Shut Down and Is Fighting for Its Survival

The aging telescope could have a faulty memory board.
Brad Bergan
Hubble, viewed during an EVA in space.NASA / Wikimedia

All good things must come to an end.

And, while it's not quite finished, the Hubble Space Telescope has experienced serious computer issues, forcing all astronomical activities to shut down, according to a NASA announcement shared in a blog post. The orbital observatory has remained in idle mode since Sunday, when a computer from the 1980s that controls all science instruments automatically shut down, potentially due to a faulty memory board.

This is the latest in an increasingly frequent series of minor and major failures on the aging telescope, which has vastly expanded our grasp of the universe since it was launched in 1990.

Flight controllers flew into action on Sunday at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, in a collective attempt to restart the computer, but when they tried on Monday, Hubble shut down again. As of writing, the team is trying to switch the telescope's computer to a backup memory board. If these efforts prove successful, the orbital observatory will undergo tests for a full day before NASA attempts to restart its science instruments, and observations of the universe can continue.

Hubble's defunct memory board was last serviced in 2009

However, as of writing, all cameras and instruments on Hubble are locked in safe mode. Since its 1990 launch, the telescope has earned global renown with gems of astronomy like the Hubble Deep Field, which showed that an area of the sky indiscernably dark to the human eye was actually filled with countless galaxies from the ancient universe. But this latest failure is another testament to Hubble's aging position in the canon of great astronomical observatories, despite numerous repairs and software updates from spacewalking astronauts sent up on space shuttles.

The computer experiencing issues was installed amid a fifth and final service call, back in 2009. While many of us might wish for additional service calls, there's another world-historical telescope on the horizon. The James Webb Space Telescope is slated to launch later this year from French Guiana atop Europe's Ariane rocket. But, in addition to falling years and years behind schedule, the successor to Hubble will operate from 1 million miles (1.5 million km) — a location far too distant for astronauts to make regular tune-ups.

While scientists would like Hubble's service to overlap with the first weeks to years of the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope, the 1990s-era rock-star observatory might be too far past its prime to survive the journey. But rest assured, it and the entire NASA team of flight controllers will continue to work to bring this dream to reality.

This was developing news and was regularly updated as new information became available.

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