The Hubble space telescope is on course to complete 32 years of service following yet another scare that had many believing it may never work again, a report from UniverseToday reveals.
The recovery of operations is a cause for celebration, though it is also the latest reminder that Hubble is composed of decades-old hardware. The question is, how long will it last, and what is NASA doing to extend the iconic telescope's lifespan?
Hubble has been plagued by technical issues in recent years
The latest technical issues began on October 23rd, when NASA reported that the telescope was sending back error codes indicating the loss of a specific synchronization message. That particular message provides timing information for Hubble's instruments, so that it can respond to data requests and commands without error. Multiple losses of synchronization errors led to Hubble being placed in safe mode.
NASA worked hard to restore operations throughout November, and, on Nov. 8th, the space agency announced that it regained partial control of the iconic telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS). Shortly afterwards, Hubble's most-used instrument, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) and the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC-3), was also restored.
Then, on Monday, Dec. 7th, the Hubble team announced that all four active instruments aboard the Hubble were online and that the telescope was fully operational once again. While astronomy enthusiasts can breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate, these recent events sadly indicate that Hubble might be nearing the end of its lifespan.
Back in June, another issue caused by Hubble's NSSC-1 payload computer also ceased operations. The team was able to bring the telescope back online roughly a month later after a "risky" switchover procedure to backup hardware, but the increasing frequency of such issues is a cause for concern. A similar problem also occurred in October, 2018, when one of the telescope's reaction wheels failed to go into safe mode.
Extending an aging telescope's lifetime
It is widely documented that Hubble runs on hardware from the 80s and 90s, meaning that many experts warn the 31-year-old telescope may be nearing the end of operations. Still, according to NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center, the Hubble team is essentially patching the telescope's software to help extend its lifespan as much as possible.
One change the Hubble team will make is to install a software update to allow it to continue to run operations even if it experiences a series of lost synchronization messages. This will be implemented as part of a series of software updates aimed at improving the efficiency, and therefore longevity, of the telescope's aging hardware.
NASA is, of course, also expecting to launch its much-hyped James Webb Space Telescope later this month, with the launch tentatively scheduled for Dec. 22. This means that, even if Hubble is close to the end of its illustrious record-breaking mission, the U.S. space agency will at least add another powerful observatory to its arsenal in the very near future.
Though the James Webb Telescope is not a like-for-like successor to Hubble, it will help the global astronomical community to continue to unravel the mysteries of dark matter and extend the search for alien life.