To fix the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA may have to rely on a computer that hasn’t turned on since 2009

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The Hubble Space Telescope orbiting Earth shortly after NASA astronauts serviced the observatory in May 2009.

NASA still hasn’t figured out what forced its Hubble Space Telescope offline more than a week ago.

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.

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This image uses 16 years of Hubble data – 7,500 photos – to capture about 265,000 galaxies.

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.

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In the first servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, astronauts installed a set of specialized lenses to correct the main mirror.

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.”

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Jeff Bezos will spend just 3 minutes in space, without a pilot. His launch will be unlike any prior US spaceflight.

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Jeff Bezos (left) is set to launch aboard the New Shepard rocket (right) on July 20.

Jeff Bezos is preparing to rocket into space on July 20, but he won’t be there for very long. With Earth shining outside the windows, Bezos will float around the cabin of his company’s New Shepard spaceship for just three minutes before he has to strap into his seat again and fall back to the ground.

Blue Origin, the rocket company that Bezos founded in 2000, plans to use this launch system to carry tourists up to the edge of space. New Shepard’s goal is simple: give paying customers the ride of their lives. Passengers will get a few minutes of stunning views out of the largest windows of any spaceship in the world.

This is the first launch system designed for that purpose, and Bezos will be among the first people to fly on it, alongside his brother Mark and the highest bidder for the third seat. Combined, these factors make this flight unlike any other before it.

“Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space,” Bezos said in a Monday Instagram post announcing his plans to rocket into space.

“I want to go on this flight because it’s a thing I wanted to do all my life. It’s an adventure – it’s a big deal for me,” he added in an accompanying video.

In this dream-realizing flight of Bezos’s, there will be no pilot, since the process is automated – and perhaps not even spacesuits either. Here’s what to expect.

3 minutes of weightlessness

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Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard suborbital rocket launches toward space in 2016.

On launch day, Bezos, his brother, and a to-be-determined multimillionaire will climb into the round, spacious cabin of the New Shepard and strap in. If all goes according to plan, the rocket will then fire its engines, spewing flame and smoke across the plains of West Texas, in order to heave itself off the launchpad and into the skies.

As New Shepard screams through the atmosphere, the force of its climb and the pull of Earth’s gravity will pin the Bezos brothers and their guest into their reclining seats.

After just three minutes, they will suddenly feel weightless. They’ll have another three minutes to unbuckle and float around the cabin, drifting from one window to another. Those windows, which make up one-third of the capsule’s surface, will show the passengers the curve of Earth on one side of the spaceship and the blackness of space on the other.

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The view from space on New Shepard’s 15th flight, April 14, 2021.

Astronauts have a term for the feeling of awe this view of Earth can inspire: “the Overview Effect.”

“When we look down at the Earth from space, we see this amazing, indescribably beautiful planet. It looks like a living, breathing organism. But it also, at the same time, looks extremely fragile,” Ron Garan, an astronaut who spent 177 days in space, explained in a 2013 documentary film titled “Overview.”

He added: “Anybody else who’s ever gone to space says the same thing because it really is striking and it’s really sobering to see this paper-thin layer and to realize that that little paper-thin layer is all that protects every living thing on Earth from death, basically.”

Briefly, for just a minute or two, the New Shepard spaceship should clear the Kármán line – an imaginary boundary 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level, where space begins.

Then as gravity takes hold again and the spaceship begins to fall back to Earth, Bezos and his co-passengers will strap in for a high-speed plunge through the atmosphere. Then the capsule should deploy three parachutes – likely giving the passengers a significant jerk as the chutes balloon into the air to brake the spaceship’s fall.

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The New Shepard crew capsule parachutes to a landing at Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in Texas, January 14, 2021.

After that, the parachutes should carry the capsule to a gentle landing in the Texas desert, where a recovery crew will be waiting to retrieve the Bezoses and their companion.

Meanwhile, the rocket booster will fall back to Earth separately, fire its engines to slow itself to about 5 mph, and self-land on a concrete pad, to be restored and fly again another day.

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The New Shepard booster lands after the vehicle’s fifth flight, May 2, 2019.

The whole journey will last about 11 minutes. That’s because New Shepard is a suborbital rocket. It’s too small, and its engines don’t have enough thrust, to push itself into orbit. So any tourists riding it, including Bezos, will just get to peek above the edge of space.

Another rocket company, Virgin Galactic, has flown people on similar suborbital flights before. But their missions require pilots to land their plane-like vehicle. For New Shepard, the entire flight is automated, so there will be no pilots or professional astronauts on board.

No spacesuits, either?

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A dummy called Mannequin Skywalker flies onboard the New Shepard in a Blue Origin flight suit, January 14, 2021.

Blue Origin hasn’t specified whether Bezos or his companions will wear a pressurized spacesuit and helmet during their flight. But the company’s website indicates that New Shepard passengers will wear only a jumpsuit.

NASA astronauts and their international counterparts all wear pressurized spacesuits when they launch or land. NASA started requiring this after the Challenger disaster in 1986, when the Space Shuttle broke apart during launch, killing all seven crew members.

Spacesuits probably would not have saved the people aboard Challenger, but they could save lives if a space capsule happens to experience a cabin leak yet remain intact.

Blue Origin did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the upcoming flight. The New Shepard has flown successfully 15 times and has twice tested an emergency-escape system that should jettison the capsule and its passengers away from a failing rocket.

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An apparent meteor shower over the Pacific Northwest was actually burning space debris from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket – take a look

Elon Musk
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

  • Debris from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was streaking across the skies above Seattle and Portland on Thursday.
  • Astronomer Jonathan McDowell tweeted that it would probably fall in the Rockies near the Canadian border.
  • The space junk was from Starlink’s 20th mission at the start of May, he said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The bright lights hurtling across the sky in the Pacific Northwest on Thursday were made by burning space debris from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket falling back to Earth.

People in Seattle and Portland started posting videos online of what they initially thought was a meteor shower.

The National Weather Service Seattle later posted on Twitter that the bright objects were debris from one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets “that did not successfully have a deorbit burn.”

A “deorbit burn” is when a rocket flips tail-first and fires its engines, to allow it to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, according to NASA.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard University, posted on Twitter that the objects streaking across the Pacific Northwest were the second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket that was launched on March 4. The debris was re-entering the atmosphere after 22 days in orbit, he said.

The falling debris is “unlikely to be major,” he tweeted, and “would probably fall in the Rockies near the Canadian border.”

McDowell said in a separate tweet that this is the 14th piece of space junk weighing over one tonne that had come back down to Earth since January 1.

SpaceX regularly launches rockets from sites in California, Florida and Texas.

The rocket launch on March 4, from which McDowell said the debris came from, blasted 60 satellites into orbit for SpaceX’s 20th Starlink mission. It was SpaceX’s sixth Starlink launch of 2021.

The satellites were adding to a rapidly expanding constellation of satellites beaming the internet down to Earth. Currently, there are around 1,300 Starlink satellites in orbit, and the company wants to eventually launch up to 42,000.

Here are some of the scenes that people in the Pacific NW witnessed on Thursday:

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A magnetic spacecraft that can attract dead satellites has entered orbit – a test in a new effort to clean up space junk

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An illustration shows Astroscale’s ELSA-d spacecraft pulling in its space-debris companion using magnets.

Earth’s orbit desperately needs someone to take out the trash. A Japanese company is trying to keep the problem from getting worse.

The company, called Astroscale, has designed a spacecraft with a magnetic plate that can attach to dead satellites – as long as they have the other side of the magnet. That enables it to pull the satellites into a freefall, burning up both the spacecraft and its satellite passenger in Earth’s atmosphere.

The first version of this technology is called the End-of-Life Services by Astroscale demonstration mission, or ELSA-d, and it launched from Kazakhstan on Monday. The spacecraft carries a fake piece of “space debris” with the necessary magnetic plate built in. The plan calls for ELSA-d to release this fake debris then practice grabbing it while both are in orbit.

In the future, satellite companies could build this type of magnetic docking plate into their own spacecraft and hire Astroscale to remove satellites from orbit when they go defunct.

“This is an incredible moment, not only for our team, but for the entire satellite servicing industry, as we work towards maturing the debris-removal market and ensuring the responsible use of our orbits,” Nobu Okada, Astroscale Founder and CEO, said in a statement.

In other words, as the company tweeted after launch: “Let the era of space sustainability begin.”

However, existing space junk doesn’t have built-in magnetic plates compatible with Astroscale’s new spacecraft. According to the European Space Agency, more than 2,400 dead satellites and 100 million bits of debris are already circling Earth – space junk that ELSA-d cannot clean up.

As Earth’s orbit gets more and more congested, this space trash becomes more likely to crash, and those collisions can then send new clouds of metal chunks careening around the planet. Over time, such collisions could create a thick belt of debris that, in a worst-case scenario, may cut off access to outer space.

Space collisions create ‘gunshot blasts’ of high-speed debris

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An illustration of a rocket-body explosion in space.

Even tiny bits of space debris are dangerous, since they zip around the planet at roughly 10 times the speed of a bullet. Last year, the International Space Station had to maneuver away from space debris on three occasions, since a collision could endanger the astronauts on board.

But the largest pieces of space junk – the dead satellites and discarded rocket husks – pose the greatest collision risk.

In October, a defunct Soviet satellite and an old Chinese rocket body passed alarmingly close together. Since nobody could control either spacecraft, there was no way to prevent a collision.

Luckily, the objects did not crash. But if they had, astronomer Jonathan McDowell calculated it would have produced an explosion roughly equivalent to detonating 14 metric tons of TNT and sent chunks of spacecraft rocketing in all directions.

Prior to that, in January 2020, two dead satellites almost crossed paths and exploded into hundreds of thousands of bits of debris.

If they’d collided, that would have been like replacing “two satellites with essentially two shotgun blasts of debris,” Dan Ceperley, the CEO of satellite-tracking company LeoLabs, told Insider at the time.

Scientists have observed real collisions in space as well. In 2007, China tested an anti-satellite missile by obliterating one of its own weather satellites. Two years later, one American and one Russian spacecraft accidentally collided. Those two events alone increased the amount of large debris in low-Earth orbit by about 70%.

Then when India conducted its own anti-satellite missile test in 2019, the explosion created an estimated 6,500 pieces of debris larger than an eraser.

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A simulation of space debris created by India’s “Mission Shakti” anti-satellite missile test on March 27, 2019.

All in all, more than 500 such “fragmentation events” have created nearly 130 million bits of debris in Earth’s orbit.

Out-of-control orbital debris could cut off humans’ access to space

If the space-junk problem gets extreme, a chain of collisions could spiral out of control and surround Earth in a practically impassable field of debris. This possibility is known as the Kessler syndrome, after Donald J. Kessler, who worked for NASA’s Johnson Space Center and calculated in a 1978 paper that it could take hundreds or even thousands of years for such debris to clear enough to make spaceflight safe again.

“It is a long-term effect that takes place over decades and centuries,” Ted Muelhaupt, who leads The Aerospace Corporation’s satellite system analysis, previously told Insider. “Anything that makes a lot of debris is going to increase that risk.”

The sheer number of objects in Earth’s orbit may already be having a Kessler-like effect. Experts say that space congestion has gotten significantly worse since companies like SpaceX began launching large fleets of internet satellites into orbit.

“This has a massive impact on the launch side,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told CNN Business in October. He added that rockets “have to try and weave their way up in between these [satellite] constellations.”

Astroscale aims to help ensure that dead, uncontrollable satellites don’t wind up lurking inside those constellations.

Some companies may clean up old space junk

A few companies have already expressed an interest in or commitment to cleaning up some existing space junk.

ClearSpace, based in Switzerland, recently signed a contract with the European Space Agency to remove part of an old Vega rocket from orbit in 2025. Airbus, meanwhile, has tested satellite-capture methods using a harpoon and a net.

Astroscale’s demo mission aims to test its magnet strategy. Shortly after separating from its “space junk” prototype, ELSA-d will try to re-capture it. If that basic maneuver goes well, the spacecraft will try more complicated tasks: Astroscale will instruct the debris prototype to tumble, spinning like a dead satellite normally would. That will force the ELSA-d spacecraft to assess it target and line up with the prototype’s docking magnet.

Once the demonstration is done, the plan is for ELSA-d and its captured “debris” to plunge into the atmosphere to meet a fiery demise.

No company so far has a large-scale space clean-up in its sights, though.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has said that the company’s mega-spaceship, Starship, could one day be put to the task. But for now, the number of objects in Earth’s orbit is growing every year.

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