Astronomers spotted a distant planet in the middle of making its own moon

orange disk around a star with planet small orange dot
The PDS 70 system, located nearly 400 light-years away and still in the process of being formed, with planet PDS 70c circled in blue.

For the first time, astronomers have captured an alien moon in the making.

Two enormous Jupiter-like planets are orbiting a star about 400 light-years away – and one of them seems to be forming a moon. Researchers aimed the radio dishes of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) at the distant planetary system and captured a ring of material surrounding the planet.

That “disc” is exactly how astronomers think moons form. A planet’s gravity captures surrounding dust and gas, then its rotation whips that material into a spinning disc. Over time, the dust and gas falls together into moons. Astronomers still don’t fully understand how this process works, so they could learn a lot from studying this planet.

Similarly, the star itself has a disc – material that could one day coalesce into new planets.

“These new observations are also extremely important to prove theories of planet formation that could not be tested until now,” Jaehan Bae, a researcher at the Earth and Planets Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who co-authored the study, said in a press release.

The first image, above, shows the star at the center of the disc. The system is called PDS 70, and the planet with the moon disc is called PDS 70c.

The planet’s moon-making halo, captured below, is about the width of the distance between Earth and the sun. That’s about 500 times larger than Saturn’s rings.

exoplanet small orange dot surrounded by disk
The planet PDS 70c and its disc.

The disc contains enough material to make three moons the size of our own moon, according to the astronomers, who published their research in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on Thursday.

“In short, it is still unclear when, where, and how planets and moons form,” Stefano Facchini, a co-author of the study and research fellow at the European Southern Observatory, said in the release. “This system therefore offers us a unique opportunity to observe and study the processes of planet and satellite formation.”

The other planet circling this star does not show signs of a disc. The researchers said this could indicate that the moon-disc planet gobbled up all the available material, starving its twin. In addition to forming moons, the disc is likely helping the planet grow larger as material slowly falls into it.

The researchers plan to look at this star and its disc-adorned planet more closely with the Extremely Large Telescope, still under construction in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Once built, it will be the largest visible- and infrared-light telescope on Earth.

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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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30 years of stunning photos show why NASA is fighting to save its Hubble Space Telescope from a mysterious glitch

a hubble view of starburst galaxy messier 94_22411319925_o_orig
Galaxy Messier 94, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, is rapidly forming new stars in the bright ring surrounding it.

The Hubble Space Telescope has been hibernating for nearly three weeks, as NASA troubleshoots a mysterious error that forced it offline.

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 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. NASA has tried and failed to bring it back online four times.

The Hubble team has since determined that the computer may not be the problem. The team is still running diagnostics and assessing other parts of the telescope. If NASA can’t fix the issue, Hubble should be able to switch to backup hardware. But the telescope hasn’t been upgraded since the last astronauts serviced it in 2009.

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.

crab nebula green orange yellow web
The Crab Nebula – a 6-light-year-wide expanding remnant of a star’s supernova explosion – as imaged by Hubble.

“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.

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

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.

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

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.

nebulas red blue stars forming large magellanic cloud
The giant red nebula (NGC 2014) and its smaller blue neighbor (NGC 2020) are part of a vast star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.

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.

noir lab jupiter hubble
Labels added to this Hubble Space Telescope image of Jupiter point out atmospheric features on the planet, including the Great Red Spot and Red Spot Jr.

The space observatory has created portraits of Jupiter, imaged an enormous vortex raging on Neptune, and illustrated the seasons of Saturn.

One of Hubble’s most iconic images, from its Deep Field project, offers one of our widest, deepest portraits of the visible universe.

hubble ultra deep field faint galaxies
A segment of Hubble’s Ultra Deep Field image, which contains about 265,000 galaxies that stretch back in time to just 500 million years after the Big Bang.

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.

hubble first light
Hubble’s “first light” image (right) compared to the same stars imaged by a telescope on Earth (left).

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.

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 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.

pillars of creation eagle nebula pillars of dust and gas against green cosmic light
Columns of cool interstellar hydrogen gas and dust incubate new stars in the Eagle Nebula, photographed by Hubble on April 1, 1995.

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.

eagle nebula pillars of creation veils of dust and gas form stars against a blue purple green cosmic background
The pillars stretch about 5 light-years. In this image, the blue colors represent oxygen, red is sulfur, and green is nitrogen and hydrogen.

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.

pillars of creation ghostly against a starry background
The Pillars of Creation captured in near-infrared light, released January 5, 2015.

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.

star eta carinae two lobes of pink purple gas in space
The supermassive star Eta Carinae, flanked by two enormous dust bubbles, as imaged by Hubble in 2018.

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.

spiral galaxy
Spiral galaxy NGC 4603, imaged by Hubble, helped astronomers calculate the rate of the universe’s expansion in 1999.

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.

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A small portion of one of the largest known star-birth regions in the galaxy, the Carina Nebula, released April 22, 2010. The image shows the top of a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas and dust.

“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.

pluto moons discovery
Hubble images reveal two new moons, later named Hydra and Nix, circling Pluto.

Ground-based telescopes had spotted just one Pluto moon: Charon. Astronomers named the new moons Hydra and Nix.

Then just a year later, Hubble spotted a new object in the Kuiper Belt that was larger than Pluto, which threw its status as a planet into question. (Pluto is now considered a dwarf planet.)

Planets circling other stars are too far away and too small for Hubble to photograph. But the telescope has nonetheless made important discoveries about these exoplanets.

exoplanet small red dot moves around its star
The first-ever direct image of a world beyond our solar system shows the planet Fomalhaut b, as imaged by Hubble in 2004 and 2006.

Hubble has detected organic molecules and carbon dioxide on planets orbiting other stars — the first observations like that ever made. It also captured an exoplanet in visible light for the first time in the mid-2000s.

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.

dark matter ring in cluster of galaxies
This composite image shows the ring-like distribution of dark matter in the galaxy cluster Cl 0024+17, based on Hubble’s observations of how the dark matter’s gravity distorts light.

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.

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A Hubble image of the comet 2I/Borisov taken October 12, 2019.

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.

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

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.”

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Even the Hubble Space Telescope’s backup computer is glitching now – raising new questions about what’s gone wrong

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

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 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.”

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

hubble space telescope orbiting earth satellite hst nasa heic0908c
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.

hubble ultra deep field faint galaxies
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.

two astronauts in spacesuits work on the hubble space telescope in space above earth
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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China now holds the world’s last giant, single-dish telescope after the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope collapsed

Photo taken on Sept. 24, 2016 shows the 500-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope in Pingtang County, southwest China's Guizhou Province. The FAST, world's largest radio telescope, measuring 500 meters in diameter, was completed and put into use.
China’s 500-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST).

  • China’s Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) is the largest and last remaining giant, single-dish telescope after Arecibo’s collapse.
  • As China’s moon mission advances, experts say the via its resolution and sensitivity, the FAST telescope will help produce critical research over the next decades.
  • Opened in 2016, in November, Chinese state media reported that FAST could welcome foreign scientists in 2021. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

After tragedy struck the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico on Wednesday, the scientific community mourned the loss of an astronomical landmark.

There is now only one last remaining giant, single-dish, radio telescope in the world: China’s 500-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST). 

Completed in 2016 and located in the Guizhou province of southwest China, the observatory cost $171 million and took about half a decade to build. Its sheer size allows it to detect faint radio-waves from pulsars and materials in galaxies far away; 300 of its 500-meter diameter can be used at any one time.

Experts say that in the next decade, FAST is expected to shine in terms of studying the origins of supermassive black holes or identifying faint radio waves to understand the characteristics of planets outside the solar system. 

In November, Chinese state media reported that in 2021, the FAST facility would become open to use for foreign scientists. 

The National Astronomical Observatory under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which oversees FAST, did not immediately respond to comment.

ARECIBO_BEFOREAFTER.skitch2
Before and after shots of the Arecibo telescope.

There were some functions that Arecibo’s telescope could do that FAST can’t, however.

“For observation within the solar system, Arecibo was able to transmit signals and receive their reflections from planets, a function that FAST isn’t able to complete on its own. The feature allowed Arecibo to facilitate monitoring of near-Earth asteroids, which is important in defending the Earth from space threats,” Liu Boyang, a researcher in radio astronomy at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, University of Western Australia, told the South China Morning Post

As Business Insider reported earlier in the week, China has made significant strides within the space race as the US has suffered a setback.

China’s Chang’e-5 probe landed on the moon this week, collected lunar samples and the samples have made it back to its orbiter, which will start the process of a weeks-long journey back to earth to deliver the samples. Today, Chinese state media and NASA shared images of China planting its flag on the moon.

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