The telescope’s payload computer – a machine from the 1980s that controls and monitors all of the spacecraft’s scientific instruments – abruptly stopped working on 13 June. Engineers have been troubleshooting the problem ever since, but with little success.
However, a recent NASA announcement suggests a glimmer of hope: The agency tweeted on Thursday that it had successfully tested a procedure that would switch parts of the telescope’s hardware to their backup components.
This could pave the way for the payload computer to return online, leading to the reboot of Hubble’s scientific observations.
NASA reported that the procedure could take place as early as next week after further preparations and reviews. The telescope and the scientific instruments on board remain in working order.
But the contact will be “risky”, according to NASA’s director of astrophysics, Paul Hertz.
“You can actually not get your hands on and change hardware or take a voltage, so that makes it very challenging,” he told New Scientist.
NASA has previously switched Hubble to its backup hardware
Hubble is the world’s most powerful space telescope; it orbits 353 miles above the Earth.
On June 30, NASA announced that they had discovered that the source of the payload computer problem was in Hubble’s Science Instrument Command and Data Handling unit (SI C&DH for short), where the computer is located.
“A few pieces of hardware on SI C&DH could be the culprit,” NASA said.
Backup pieces of hardware are pre-installed on the telescope. So it’s just a matter of switching to the redundant hardware. But before engineers try on the difficult switch from Earth, they must practice in a simulator, the agency added.
NASA has previously restarted Hubble using this type of operation. In 2008, after a computer crash took the telescope offline for two weeks, engineers successfully switched to redundant hardware. A year later, astronauts repaired two broken instruments while in orbit – Hubble’s fifth and final reservation operation. (NASA does not currently have a way to launch astronauts to the space telescope.)
Getting the $ 2 million observatory back online is crucial for NASA.
“Hubble is one of NASA’s most important astrophysical missions. It has been in operation for over 31 years and NASA hopes it will last for many years,” a spokesman for the agency told Insider in June.
Hubble, which started in orbit in 1990, has taken pictures of stellar births and deaths, discovered new moons around Pluto and tracked two interstellar objects as they zipped through our solar system. Hubble’s observations have also allowed astronomers to calculate the age and expansion of the universe and look at galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang.
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