Hubble Trouble: NASA can’t figure out what’s causing computer problems on the telescope


There’s a technical problem with the legendary space telescope that has brought you stunning photos of the solar system and enriched our understanding of the cosmos over the past three decades.

NASA scientists say the Hubble Space Telescope’s payload computer, which operates the spacecraft’s scientific instruments, suddenly broke on June 13. Without it, the on-board instruments for taking photos and collecting data do not currently work.

Scientists performed a series of tests on the faulty computer system, but have yet to figure out what was wrong.

“It’s just the inefficiency of trying to fix something that orbits 400 miles above your head instead of in your lab,” Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics at NASA, told NPR.

“If this computer was in the lab, we would plug in monitors and test inputs and outputs everywhere, and we would be really quick to diagnose it,” he said. “All we can do is send a command from our limited set of commands, then see what data comes out of the computer, then send that data and try to analyze it.”

NASA has tested different theories

At first, NASA scientists wondered if a “degrading memory module” on Hubble was to blame. On Tuesday, the agency said it was investigating whether the computer’s central processing module (CPM) or its standard interface hardware (STINT), which helps the CPM communicate with other components, was causing the problem.

Hertz said the current hypothesis, although not verified, was that the technical problem was a “random part failure” somewhere on the computer system, which was built in the 1980s and launched into space in 1990. .

“These are very primitive computers compared to what’s in your cell phone,” he said, “but the problem is we can’t touch or see it.”

Most of Hubble’s components have redundant backups, so once scientists figure out the specific component that’s causing the computer problem, they can remotely switch to its backup part.

“The rule of thumb is that when something works, you don’t change it,” Hertz said. “We would like to change as little as possible when we return Hubble to service.”

The telescope can still operate without the computer

The instruments used by the payload computer – such as the advanced survey camera that captures images from space and the cosmic-origin spectrograph that measures distant sources of ultraviolet light – are currently in “no mode.” failure ‘and do not work.

The telescope itself, which operates on a different system, continued to operate by pointing to different parts of the sky on a set schedule. “The reason we’re doing this is because the telescope keeps changing its orientation relative to the sun in the way we expected, and this maintains the thermal stability of the telescope, keeps it at the right temperature,” Hertz said.

The last time astronauts visited Hubble was in 2009 for its fifth and final maintenance mission.

Hertz said that because Hubble was designed to be serviced by the Space Shuttle and the Space Shuttle fleet has since been retired, there are no future plans to maintain the Outer Space Observatory.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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