The Earth-orbiting observatory went offline on June 13 and stayed that way for more than a month while engineers struggled to identify a mysterious glitch. NASA still hasn’t announced what exactly caused the problem, but the agency’s engineers managed to bring Hubble back online by activating some of its backup hardware on Thursday.
“I was quite worried,” NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said in a Friday video interview with Nzinga Tull, who led the Hubble team through troubleshooting. “We all knew this was riskier than we normally do.”
Hubble slowly powered up its science instruments again over the weekend and conducted system check-outs to make sure everything still worked. Then it snapped its first images since the whole debacle started.
The telescope focused its lens on a set of unusual galaxies on Saturday. One of its new images shows a pair of galaxies slowly colliding. The other image shows a spiral galaxy with long, extended arms. Most spiral galaxies have an even number of arms, but this one only has three.
Hubble is also observing Jupiter’s northern and southern lights, or auroras, as well as tight clusters of stars. NASA hasn’t shared images from those observations yet.
“I’m thrilled to see that Hubble has its eye back on the universe, once again capturing the kind of images that have intrigued and inspired us for decades,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a press release. “This is a moment to celebrate the success of a team truly dedicated to the mission. Through their efforts, Hubble will continue its 32nd year of discovery, and we will continue to learn from the observatory’s transformational vision.”
A mysterious glitch that took a month to fix
Hubble, the world’s most powerful space telescope, launched into orbit in 1990. It has photographed the births and deaths of stars, spotted new moons circling Pluto, and tracked two interstellar objects zipping through our solar system. Its observations have allowed astronomers to calculate the age and expansion of the universe and to peer at galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang.
But the telescope’s payload computer suddenly stopped working on June 13. That computer, built in the 1980s, is like Hubble’s brain – it controls and monitors all the science instruments on the spacecraft. Engineers tried and failed to bring it back online several times. Eventually, after running more diagnostic tests, they realized that the computer wasn’t the problem at all – some other hardware on the spacecraft was causing the shutdown.
It’s still not totally clear which piece of hardware was the culprit. Engineers suspect that a failsafe on the telescope’s Power Control Unit (PCU) instructed the payload computer to shut down. The PCU could have been sending the wrong voltage of electricity to the computer, or the failsafe itself could have been malfunctioning.
NASA was prepared for issues like this. Each piece of Hubble’s hardware has a twin pre-installed on the telescope in case it fails. So engineers switched all the faulty parts to that backup hardware. Now the telescope is back in full observation mode.
“I feel super excited and relieved,” Tull said after making the hardware switch. “Glad to have good news to share.”
Though NASA has fixed the glitch, it’s a sign that Hubble’s age may be starting to interfere with its science. The telescope hasn’t been upgraded since 2009, and some of its hardware is more than 30 years old.
“This is an older machine, and it’s kind of telling us: Look, I’m getting a little bit old here, right? It’s talking to us,” Zurbuchen said on Friday. “Despite that, more science is ahead, and we’re excited about it.”
The Hubble Space Telescope, which launched into orbit in 1990, has captured images of the births and deaths of stars, discovered new moons around Pluto, and tracked two interstellar objects as they zipped through our solar system. Its observations have allowed astronomers to calculate the age and expansion of the universe and to peer at galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang.
But the telescope has been offline since June 13, when one of its main computers stopped working. NASA engineers have spent the last month running diagnostic tests and analyzing data, and on Wednesday the agency announced that they may have finally traced the problem to a faulty power regulator.
With some confidence that they’ve pinpointed the glitchy component, the Hubble troubleshooters are preparing to switch to the telescope’s backup hardware on Thursday. That could return it to its science observations within a few days.
“I do believe they’re going to succeed, but it’s not guaranteed,” Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, told Insider last week.
Hubble hasn’t been upgraded since 2009, and some of its hardware is more than 30 years old.
“Could the cause of the problem have something to do with Hubble’s age? The answer is almost certainly yes,” Hertz said. “Someday, a component will randomly fail that we won’t have a backup for. That’s the most likely way the Hubble mission will end.”
NASA has to switch a large chunk of Hubble’s hardware to its backup
Hubble’s payload computer – a 1980s machine that controls and monitors all of the spacecraft’s science instruments – suddenly stopped working on June 13. Engineers tried and failed to bring it back online several times. Eventually, after running more diagnostic tests, they realized that the computer wasn’t the problem at all – some other hardware on the spacecraft was causing the shutdown.
It took another three weeks to identify the possible culprit. Now, Hubble engineers believe that a failsafe on the telescope’s Power Control Unit (PCU) instructed the payload computer to shut down. The PCU could be sending the wrong voltage of electricity to the computer, or the failsafe itself could be malfunctioning.
The good news is that each piece of Hubble’s hardware has a twin pre-installed on the telescope in case it fails. So NASA engineers just have to switch to the backup PCU.
But it’s not as simple as turning off one PCU and powering up another. The unit is linked to lots of other components of the telescope’s Science Instrument Command and Data Handling unit (SI C&DH, for short). So NASA has to switch over an entire side of the SI C&DH.
After NASA makes the switch on Thursday, that new side of the SI C&DH will no longer have a backup. If it fails in a few years, that could spell the end of Hubble.
But for now, getting the observatory back online is critical to NASA.
“Hubble is one of NASA’s most important astrophysics missions. It’s been operating for over 31 years, and NASA is hopeful it will last for many more years,” an agency spokesperson told Insider in June.
NASA has used Hubble’s backup hardware before, but it’s risky
NASA has said that although the telescope and its scientific instruments remain in working condition, the switch will be “riskier” than engineers expected after they first assessed the problem.
“You can’t see the spacecraft, you can’t watch it happen. You have to make sure that your command uploads are going to do exactly what you intend them to do,” Hertz said.
“You don’t want to accidentally turn off the radio receiver. You don’t want to accidentally swap a battery that isn’t ready to be swapped,” he added. “You just don’t want to accidentally break anything.”
So NASA engineers checked and double-checked their plans before the agency approved the switch. The team has run simulations of the switch on Hubble-imitating computers on Earth, and NASA has done two reviews of the hardware-switching procedures.
“I’ve told the team: I am not in a hurry,” Hertz said. “The most important thing is to safely recover Hubble – not to recover Hubble as quickly as possible.”
NASA has rebooted Hubble using this type of operation in the past. In 2008, after a computer crash took the telescope offline for two weeks, engineers switched over to redundant hardware. A year later, astronauts repaired two broken instruments while in orbit – that was Hubble’s fifth and final reservicing operation. NASA does not currently have a way to launch astronauts to the space telescope.
This could pave the way for the payload computer to come back online, leading to the restart of Hubble’s scientific observations.
NASA reported the procedure could happen as early as next week, following additional preparations and reviews. The telescope and the scientific instruments on board remain in working condition.
But the switch will be “risky,” according to NASA astrophysics division director Paul Hertz.
“You can’t actually put your hands on and change hardware or take a voltage, so that does make it very challenging,” he told New Scientist.
NASA has successfully switched Hubble over to its back-up hardware before
Hubble is the world’s most powerful space telescope; it orbits 353 miles above the Earth.
On June 30, NASA announced it had figured out 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 resides.
“A few hardware pieces on the SI C&DH could be the culprit(s),” NASA said.
Backup pieces of hardware are pre-installed on the telescope. So it’s just a matter of switching over to that redundant hardware. But before attempting the tricky switch from Earth, engineers have to practice in a simulator, the agency added.
NASA has rebooted Hubble using this type of operation in the past. In 2008, after a computer crash took the telescope offline for two weeks, engineers successfully switched over to redundant hardware. A year later, astronauts repaired two broken instruments while in-orbit – Hubble’s fifth and final reservicing operation. (NASA does not currently have a way to launch astronauts to the space telescope.)
Getting the $2 million observatory back online is critical to NASA.
“Hubble is one of NASA’s most important astrophysics missions. It’s been operating for over 31 years, and NASA is hopeful it will last for many more years,” an agency spokesperson told Insider in June.
Hubble, which launched into orbit in 1990, has captured images of the births and deaths of stars, 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 to peer at galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang.
Hubble is the world’s most powerful space telescope. During its three decades in orbit, it has helped astronomers calculate the age and expansion of the universe, study far-away planets, and probe the secrets of dark matter.
Hubble is the world’s most powerful space telescope. In three decades of observing the cosmos in exquisite detail, it has fundamentally changed our understanding of the universe.
“Hubble is one of NASA’s most important astrophysics missions. It’s been operating for over 31 years, and NASA is hopeful it will last for many more years,” a NASA spokesperson told Insider. “From a perspective of the value of Hubble to the scientific community, it is still the most powerful telescope available, so age is not a decision-making factor.”
The Space Shuttle Discovery carried Hubble into orbit in April 1990, the start of its 30 years of revolutionary astronomy.
The observatory has studied planets beyond our solar system, distant galaxies, and the mysterious dark matter that seems to permeate the universe.
Until it went offline, Hubble was continuing to make stunning observations of the cosmos on a monthly basis.
Altogether, the telescope has made more than 1 million scientific observations.
The result is a portfolio of awe-inspiring images of the most dramatic landscapes in our universe – clouds of incubating stars, massive explosions, and galaxies of all shapes and sizes.
Hubble’s camera captures images in grayscale, but NASA adds color after downloading the imagery — often in order to highlight particular features or chemical elements as the human eye might see them.
Hubble has also zoomed in on the planets of our solar system to capture new features and details on their surfaces.
One of Hubble’s most iconic images, from its Deep Field project, offers one of our widest, deepest portraits of the visible universe.
The further away a galaxy is, the further its light has to travel to reach us, so the older that light is when we look at it. That’s why cosmic distances are measured in light-years.
Hubble can peer so far across the universe that it captures light from galaxies that formed just 500 million years after the Big Bang. That’s how old some of the hundreds of thousands of galaxies in the telescope’s Deep Field images are.
Hubble has come a long way over the last 31 years, though. This was the first photo it took after launch.
This first Hubble image was much clearer than a telescope on the ground, but it pales in comparison to the observatory’s later masterpieces.
Shortly after launch, NASA discovered that a flaw in Hubble’s primary mirror was marring its images. So in 1993, astronauts launched into space to repair the telescope.
Hubble is the first space telescope designed for in-orbit servicing. All in all, astronauts have launched to the telescope five times for maintenance, upgrades, and repairs.
But since NASA retired the Space Shuttles in 2011, it hasn’t had any spaceships that can travel to Hubble.
One star-birthing formation became particularly famous after Hubble photographed it in 1995. These tendrils of gas and dust are called the Pillars of Creation.
The pillars are part of the Eagle Nebula, which is about 6,500 light-years away. They shroud a stellar nursery — where new stars are constantly forming from clouds of gas and dust.
The upper right corner of this photo is step-shaped due to the shape of Hubble’s camera at the time.
Hubble has turned its lens back to the pillars several times since 1995, capturing them in more color and detail each time.
Flows of electrically charged particles from a cluster of young stars located just outside the frame of this image are slowly eroding the pillars.
Hubble has even imaged the pillars in near-infrared light – revealing the newborn stars hidden in the dust.
Near-infrared light, which has wavelengths longer than visible light, makes dust transparent.
In 1998, astronomers using Hubble discovered that the universe has continued to expand faster and faster since the Big Bang.
Previously, scientists assumed that the universe expanded rapidly after the Big Bang but slowed down as time wore on. However, by using Hubble to peer at dying stars far away — near the beginning of the universe — astronomers discovered that there isn’t enough matter in the universe for gravity to stop it from expanding. Therefore, the universe’s expansion will keep speeding up.
The researchers behind the discovery won a Nobel Prize in 2011.
Astronomers then used Hubble’s observations to calculate how fast the universe is expanding – a measurement known as the Hubble Constant.
That measure (like the telescope) is named after Edwin Hubble, the astronomer who first discovered that galaxies speed away from us at faster rates when they’re further away.
Calculating the Hubble Constant helped astronomers determine how old the universe is. Thanks to the telescope, they have a much better idea of the universe’s age today — scientists think it’s about 13.8 billion years old. The actual rate of its expansion is still up for debate, though.
“Before Hubble, astronomers could not decide if the universe was 10 billion or 20 billion years old,” astronomer Wendy Freedman said in 1999.
“The size scale of the universe had a range so vast that it didn’t allow astronomers to confront with any certainty many of the most basic questions about the origin and eventual fate of the cosmos,” Freedman, an astrophysicist who led the team that measured the Hubble Constant, said in a 1999 press release. “After all these years, we are finally entering an era of precision cosmology. Now we can more reliably address the broader picture of the universe’s origin, evolution and destiny.”
In 2005, Hubble spotted two previously undetected moons circling Pluto.
Ground-based telescopes had spotted just one Pluto moon: Charon. Astronomers named the new moons Hydra and Nix.
In 2019, Hubble found evidence of water vapor on an exoplanet — another major first in the search for alien life. Some scientists think that planet could be habitable.
Hubble has also given scientists some of their best data on dark matter.
Hubble allowed astronomers to map the distribution of dark matter throughout the universe.
In recent years, one team of scientists has used Hubble to study a galaxy that doesn’t appear to contain any dark matter at all. Since dark matter was previously thought to be like glue holding the universe together, this galaxy could throw everything into question.
Hubble also imaged the first known interstellar comet to zoom through our solar system.
The comet, known as 2I/Borisov, came from another star system and hurtled past the sun at speeds of 110,000 miles per hour. It didn’t get closer to Earth than 190 million miles (300 million kilometers), but Hubble spotted it anyway.
Hubble could still have years of science ahead of it. NASA hopes to keep the telescope alive well into the 2020s.
But to do that, the Hubble team needs to figure out what’s causing the recent glitch. It hopes to identify the culprit this week.
Paul Hertz, NASA’s director of astrophysics, told NPR that the slow diagnostic process can mostly be chalked up to “the inefficiency of trying to fix something which is orbiting 400 miles over your head instead of in your laboratory.”
“If this computer were in the lab, we’d be hooking up monitors and testing the inputs and outputs all over the place, and would be really quick to diagnose it,” he said. “The problem is we can’t touch it or see it.”
NASA has been trying to figure out what’s wrong with the Hubble Space Telescope for nearly two weeks, but the mystery just deepened.
Hubble, which launched into orbit in 1990, is the world’s most powerful space telescope. It has captured images of the births and deaths of stars, discovered new moons around Pluto, and tracked two interstellar objects as they zipped through our solar system. Hubble’s observations have allowed astronomers to calculate the age and expansion of the universe and to peer at galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang.
But the Earth-orbiting observatory hasn’t done any scientific work for 12 days. The telescope’s payload computer – a 1980s machine that controls and monitors all the spacecraft’s science instruments – suddenly stopped working on June 13.
NASA’s Hubble team has been troubleshooting ever since. But the team figured that even if they couldn’t fix the computer, they could always switch to Hubble’s backup payload computer.
This week, though, NASA discovered that the backup computer was glitching, too. So now it’s hunting for a new explanation for Hubble’s mysterious problems.
Hubble has taken NASA down a rabbit hole of glitches
NASA first tried – unsuccessfully – to restart the payload computer. Then the team turned its attention to memory module that has been degrading, since it was registering errors. The Hubble team thought that could be the root of the problem, but no luck there, either. Both the memory module and one of its three backups wouldn’t work. That indicated the source of the issue was further upstream.
The team began running diagnostic tests on other parts of the payload computer this week. They also decided to power up the backup payload computer – which hasn’t been turned on since astronauts installed it on the telescope in 2009. But the new computer showed the same errors, in the same hardware, as the original.
That indicates that the payload computer may not be the problem after all. It’s probably another system, still further upstream.
“Since it is highly unlikely that all individual hardware elements have a problem, the team is now looking at other hardware as the possible culprit,” NASA said in a blog update on Friday.
The Hubble team now thinks the culprit could be a module that helps send commands to the telescope’s science instruments and prepare data from those instruments to beam back to Earth. That module is called the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF).
The problem could also stem from a glitchy power regulator, NASA said. If the regulator is sending the wrong voltages to Hubble’s hardware, that could explain the widespread issues.
NASA plans to continue assessing other parts of the telescope over the next week, the agency’s update said. If it looks like the CU/SDF or the power regulator are the cause of the problem, the team plans to switch to their respective backup parts. (Hubble has a lot of backups, since NASA no longer has spaceships that can carry astronauts to it to replace defective parts.)
Even though Hubble is 31 years old, it’s been doing more scientific work than ever in the last few years. NASA hopes to keep the telescope going well into the 2020s.
“Hubble is one of NASA’s most important astrophysics missions. It’s been operating for over 31 years, and NASA is hopeful it will last for many more years,” a NASA spokesperson told Insider earlier this week. “From a perspective of the value of Hubble to the scientific community, it is still the most powerful telescope available, so age is not a decision-making factor.”
The telescope’s payload computer suddenly stopped working on June 13, sending NASA engineers scrambling to figure out the problem. That computer, built in the 1980s, is like Hubble’s brain – it controls and monitors all the science instruments on the spacecraft. So the telescope has gone into a hibernation-like “safe mode” while NASA troubleshoots.
The agency has made three attempts to get Hubble’s computer working again – in vain. If NASA can’t fix the issue, the telescope should be able to switch to hardware on its backup payload computer, but that hasn’t powered up since astronauts installed it in 2009. It would take NASA several days to bring the telescope back to its full science operations following such a switch.
Hubble, which launched into orbit around Earth in 1990, is the world’s most powerful space telescope. It has imaged the births and deaths of stars, discovered new moons around Pluto, and tracked two interstellar objects as they zipped through our solar system. Hubble’s observations have allowed astronomers to calculate the age and expansion of the universe, and to peer at galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang.
But Hubble is getting old. None of its parts have been upgraded or replaced since the last astronaut mission to service the telescope in 2009.
In March, a software error also sent the telescope into safe mode. But in that case, NASA fixed the problem within a week. Now, with this mysterious new glitch, NASA has been struggling to get the Earth-orbiting observatory back online for 10 days.
But Paul Hertz, NASA’s director of astrophysics, told NPR that the timing can mostly be chalked up to “the inefficiency of trying to fix something which is orbiting 400 miles over your head instead of in your laboratory.”
“If this computer were in the lab, we’d be hooking up monitors and testing the inputs and outputs all over the place, and would be really quick to diagnose it,” he said.
A NASA spokesperson told Insider that “there are many redundancies available to the team that have not yet been tried, and it is extremely likely that one of these will work.”
“Hubble is one of NASA’s most important astrophysics missions. It’s been operating for over 31 years, and NASA is hopeful it will last for many more years,” the spokesperson said. “From a perspective of the value of Hubble to the scientific community, it is still the most powerful telescope available so age is not a decision-making factor.”
A computer error led NASA down the wrong path last week
NASA tried, and failed, to restart the malfunctioning payload computer on June 14, the day after Hubble went offline. Initial data pointed to a computer-memory module that was degrading as the potential cause of the problem. So the Hubble team tried switching to one of three backup modules aboard the telescope. But the command to start the new module didn’t work.
On Thursday, the Hubble team tried again to bring both the current module and the backup online. Both attempts failed.
Since then, further testing has revealed that the memory issues were a symptom of the real problem – which NASA still hasn’t identified.
Now the Hubble team thinks that the issue is related to the computer’s central processing module. NASA said in a blog update on Tuesday that the most likely culprit is either the module itself or some interface hardware that helps the module communicate with other parts of the telescope.
“The team is currently designing tests that will be run in the next few days to attempt to further isolate the problem and identify a potential solution,” the NASA blog said.
If that doesn’t work, the Hubble team is prepared to switch to the backup computer, which was also designed in the 1980s and has been sitting dormant in orbit for 12 years.
“They’re very primitive computers compared to what’s in your cell phone,” Hertz told NPR. “The problem is we can’t touch it or see it.”
A set of images released Tuesday show the planet in infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light. The combination reveals Jupiter’s characteristic Great Red Spot – a cyclonic storm large enough to engulf the Earth – in stunning detail. Also visible in the photos is the Great Red Spot’s smaller counterpart, aptly nicknamed Red Spot Jr. That storm, whose scientific name is Oval BA, appears to the bottom right of the Great Red Spot in the visible-light and ultraviolet images.
Astronomers were able to photograph Jupiter’s atmosphere in these different wavelengths of light by using both a camera on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and an infrared imager on the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. The images were first captured on January 11, 2017.
Such photos can help researchers glean new insight into the super-storms, hot spots, and cyclones that define the gas giant’s stormy atmosphere.
The Great Red Spot is riddled with holes
The infrared image of Jupiter shows that the cloud cover of the Great Red Spot is full of holes. Through these gaps, heat from the planet’s surface is leaking into the atmosphere.
In visible light, the holes look like swaths of different, darker clouds, but the infrared image confirmed that there aren’t any clouds in those darker patches. They’re just gaps in the giant storm.
“It’s kind of like a jack-o-lantern,” Michael Wong, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, said last year.
Wong helped produce the new infrared image of Jupiter. He thinks the Great Red Spot’s mottled visage could be explained by swirling wind currents.
“The closest analog is eddies in the ocean,” he said in a release. “As the storm clouds spin, you can get little anomalies from these eddies that form streaks by just winding up.”
To create the infrared images, Wong’s team used a technique called “lucky imaging.” That’s when a ground telescope takes many short-exposure images of the same spot, and researchers then select the sharpest ones (which are generally taken in moments when Earth’s atmosphere was creating little interference). By stitching together these images of each region, the researchers crafted a portrait of the entire planet.
Keeping tabs on Jupiter’s Great Red Spot using different types of imaging may help solve the mystery of its shrinking. In the 1800s, the Great Red Spot was almost 25,000 miles across. Since then it’s shrunk by 60% – according to Wong’s team, the spot is currently only 10,000 miles wide.
Jupiter’s Red Spot Jr. formed in 2000, when three storms merged together. Although the region appears red in the visible-light image, that’s not always the case – when the spot first formed, it was white. Then it turned red several years later, and in the four years since Hubble took the newly released images, the red spot has changed back to white again.
Although Red Spot Jr. isn’t visible in the infrared-light view of Jupiter, four large hot spots near Jupiter’s equator do appear in the image. Like in the Great Red Spot, these bright patches are regions where heat from the planet below oozes into the atmosphere.
International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA, M.H. Wong (UC Berkeley) et al. Acknowledgments: M. Zamani
Another feature visible in the infrared image is a bright streak atop a darker patch in the planet’s northern hemisphere.
This band is likely a giant cyclone, or series of cyclones, nearly 45,000 miles wide.
Narrator: Did you know that Earth has two North Poles? There’s the geographic North Pole, which never changes. And there’s the magnetic North Pole, which is always on the move. And right now it’s moving faster than usual.
Over the past 150 years, the magnetic North Pole has casually wandered 685 miles across northern Canada. But right now it’s racing 25 miles a year to the northwest.
This could be a sign that we’re about to experience something humans have never seen before: a magnetic polar flip. And when this happens, it could affect much more than just your compass.
Alanna Mitchell: Right now on the surface of the planet, it looks like it’s just a bar magnet. Our compasses are just pointing to one pole at a time because there’s a dominant two-pole system.
But sometimes, Earth doesn’t always just have a single magnetic North and South Pole. Evidence suggests that, for hundreds to thousands of years at a time, our planet has had four, six, and even eight poles at a time. This is what has happened when the magnetic poles flipped in the past. And when it happens again, it won’t be good news for humans.
Now you might think, eight poles must be better than two. But the reality is that: Multiple magnetic fields would fight each other. This could weaken Earth’s protective magnetic field by up to 90% during a polar flip.
Earth’s magnetic field is what shields us from harmful space radiation which can damage cells, cause cancer, and fry electronic circuits and electrical grids. With a weaker field in place, some scientists think this could expose planes to higher levels of radiation, making flights less safe.
This could also disrupt the internal compass in many animals who use the magnetic field for navigation. Even more extreme, it could make certain places on the planet too dangerous to live. But what exactly will take place on the surface is less clear than what will undoubtedly happen in space.
Satellites and crewed space missions will need extra shielding that we’ll have to provide ourselves. Without it, intense cosmic and solar radiation will fry circuit boards and increase the risk of cancer in astronauts.
Our modern way of life could cease to exist. We know this because we’re already seeing a glimpse of this in an area called the South Atlantic Anomaly. Turns out, the direction of a portion of the magnetic field deep beneath this area has already flipped! And scientists say that’s one reason why the field has been steadily weakening since 1840.
As a result, the Hubble Space Telescope and other satellites often shut down their sensitive electronics as they pass over the area. And astronauts on the International Space Station reported seeing a higher number of bright flashes of light in their vision, thought to be caused by high-energy cosmic rays that the weaker field can’t hold back.
Since experts started measuring the Anomaly a few decades ago, it has grown in size and now covers a fifth (20.3%) of Earth’s surface, with no signs of shrinking anytime soon. This is so extreme that it could be a sign we’re on the brink of a polar flip, or we may already be in the midst of one!
But scientists remain skeptical, mainly because …
Mitchell: They don’t know. The last time the poles reversed was 780,000 years ago so it’s not like we have a record for this.
Turns out 780,000 years is over double the time Earth usually takes between flips.
Mitchell: In the past 65 million years since the last mass extinction there have been reversals roughly every 300,000 years.
So what gives? Well, scientists haven’t figured it out yet. It’s unnerving to think that our modern way of life – banking, the stock exchange, missile tracking, GPS – relies on the outcome of something we can neither predict, nor control. One study went so far as to estimate that a single, giant solar storm today could cost the US up to $41.5 billion a day in damages.
And that’s with Earth’s magnetic field at its current strength. It’s frightening to imagine the devastation a storm would bring to an Earth with a magnetic field only 10% as strong.
We may not be able to stop a polar flip, but we can at least start to take measures to minimize the damage. The first step? Figure out what’s going on with this whacky field.
On the hunt are the European Space Agency’s SWARM satellites, which are collecting the most precise data on the strength of Earth’s magnetic field. Right now, they could be our greatest hope for solving this riddle.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published on April 9, 2018.
NASA decided to share some interstellar fireworks to end an unforgettable year.
The agency posts an “image of the day,” every day, and the final image of 2020 did not disappoint.
A canvas of color, NASA’s December 31 image of the day depicts a composite image of the Orion Nebula, captured by the Hubble Space and Spitzer Space Telescopes.
It’s located more than 1,500 light-years away from Earth.
Nebulae like this one are interstellar nurseries – giant clouds of gas and dust in space that cradle infant stars as they’re born. Some nebulae form as stars die: As a star’s core cools, it starts to shed its outer layers, which disperse to form gaseous clouds.
A rainbow canvas
To the naked eye, nebulae wouldn’t actually look like rainbow canvases peppered with dots of lights (which typically show new stars forming).
When space telescopes like the Hubble image the hydrogen, sulfur, and carbon molecules that make up nebulae like Orion, they don’t capture color. Rather, Hubble records particles of light, which NASA can then view through different filters that only let in certain wavelengths of color. Then they assign color to the particles that come through those filters (light than came through the red filter is assigned a red color, for example.)
By combining images of the same nebula viewed with different filters, the agency can create a composite, color image like the ones shown above.
“We often use color as a tool, whether it is to enhance an object’s detail or to visualize what ordinarily could never be seen by the human eye,” NASA said.
The closest known nebula to our planet is the Helix Nebula, the cosmic remnant of a dying star. It’s about half the distance from Earth as the Orion Nebula is – 700 light-years (so if you traveled at the speed of light, it’d take you 700 years to get there).
The Hubble Space Telescope has been imaging nebulae for 30 years, and these images help scientists learn more about how these cosmic clouds evolve, or even dim and shrink, over time.