After a software malfunction, Hubble, the ageing space telescope, is back in operation


After several days in a safe protective mode due to a software error, NASA‘s Hubble Space Telescope continued observations on 11 March. Still, the incident serves as a reaffirmation of the telescope’s mortality. Hubble started observations at 8 p.m. Eastern on 11 March, over four and a half days after the software error forced the spacecraft into secure mode, effectively shutting down the approximately 31-years-old space telescope.

An “improvement” lately posted to the spacecraft was blamed for the software error, according to an agency statement. The upgrade was meant to account for gyroscope variations, but a software error created a larger issue with Hubble’s primary computer, activating the safe mode on 7 March. Controllers temporarily solved the problem by deactivating that software improvement, and they plan to fix the flaw and thoroughly evaluate the latest software prior to actually re-uploading it.

However, Hubble had two other issues as a result of the safe mode. When the spaceship enters secure mode, the aperture door, which is a cover on top of the telescope, is built to close rapidly to avoid stray sunlight from damaging instruments as well as optics. However, the door was not able to swing shut throughout that safe mode, which was a first for Hubble. When engineers transitioned to the backup motor to try and fix the problem, the door got closed. They’ve now made that motor the primary one while they investigate the difficulties with the other.

During the restoration from secure mode, one of Hubble’s techniques, Wide Field Camera 3, “encountered an unanticipated error” NASA did not provide further details on the error but stated that observations that use that instrument would be put on hold while engineers investigated the issue. Other devices on the spacecraft, such as a camera as well as two spectrographs, are operational.

Hubble’s age is reflected in the safe mode and related issues. The spacecraft was launched in April 1990 and has been serviced five times by the space shuttle, the most recent being in May 2009. Astronomers know that, like the shuttle, Hubble will eventually suffer an unrecoverable failure, bringing the historic mission to a close.

At a briefing last year about space telescopes, Jennifer Wiseman, who works as an astronomer at Goddard Space Flight Center of NASA, stated, “Right now we are in the midst of what I believe is a really positive story about the Hubble.” Based on patterns in the productivity of essential aspects like the telescope’s gyroscopes as well as batteries, she and many others believe the telescope will be operational for the rest of this decade.
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