NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope photographed colliding galaxies after recovering from a month-long mystery glitch

hubble telescope in space above earth clouds
The Hubble Space Telescope hovers at the boundary of Earth and space in this picture, taken after Hubble’s second servicing mission in 1997.

The Hubble Space Telescope is back, and NASA has the pictures to prove it.

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.

galaxies black and white photos from hubble space telescope
Hubble’s first images after recovering from a month-long glitch show some unusual galaxies.

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 space telescope orbiting earth
The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit above Earth.

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.

nzinga tull sits at computer in nasa control room working on hubble space telescope
Nzinga Tull, Hubble systems anomaly response manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, works in the control room July 15 to restore Hubble to full science operations.

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.”

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NASA is about to switch its Hubble Space Telescope to backup hardware – a ‘risky’ maneuver to save its life

two astronauts in spacesuits work on the hubble space telescope in space above earth
The first servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope saw astronauts install a set of specialized lenses to correct the flawed main mirror in the telescope.

After a month of head-scratching, NASA engineers finally think they’ve identified the glitch that took out the world’s most powerful space telescope more than a month ago.

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.

hubble telescope in space above earth clouds
The Hubble Space Telescope hovers at the boundary of Earth and space in this picture, taken after Hubble’s second servicing mission in 1997.

“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 space telescope orbiting earth
The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit above Earth.

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

astronaut fixes hubble space telescope in spacesuit above earth
Seven astronauts on the Space Shuttle Endeavour replaced a malfunctioning mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope in December 1993.

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.

hubble spiral galaxy feathered
Galaxy NGC 2275, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, July 2, 2020.

“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.

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NASA will attempt a ‘risky’ maneuver to fix its broken Hubble Space Telescope as early as next week

hubble space telesope deploys from space shuttle arm in earth orbit
The Hubble Space Telescope was deployed on April 25, 1990 from the space shuttle Discovery.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has been offline for nearly a month.

The telescope’s payload computer – a 1980s machine that controls and monitors all of the spacecraft’s science instruments – suddenly stopped working on June 13. Engineers have been troubleshooting the problem since then, 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 back-up components.

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

astronaut fixes hubble space telescope in spacesuit above earth
Seven astronauts on the Space Shuttle Endeavour replaced a malfunctioning mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope in December 1993.

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.)

crab nebula green orange yellow web
The Crab Nebula – a six-light-year-wide remnant of a star’s supernova explosion – as imaged by Hubble.

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.

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