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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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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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.

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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The most detailed map yet of all dark matter in the universe reveals cosmic voids where the laws of physics seem not to apply

dark matter map
Earth-based telescopes like the Victor M. Blanco Telescope dome in Chile have helped scientists map our universe.

  • Astronomers have created the most comprehensive map yet of all dark matter in the universe.
  • Though invisible, scientists can measure dark matter’s gravity because it pulls galaxies into clumps.
  • The new map indicates dark matter’s gravity may work differently than Einstein’s theory of relativity suggests.
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Astronomers have created the most comprehensive map yet of all the dark matter in the universe.

That’s no easy feat, considering dark matter is invisible. Scientists know this shadowy cousin of regular matter exists, though, because its strong gravitational forces can pull entire galaxies together. Based on observations of its influence, astronomers estimate that dark matter makes up one-quarter of the universe.

The new map is the product of years of work by a group of 400 scientists from seven countries, known as the Dark Energy Survey (DES). They pointed the Victor M. Blanco Telescope in Chile skyward to peek at millions of galaxies bound together by dark matter. The distribution of those galaxies, and the ways in which light from them reaches Earth, can inform astronomers about how much dark matter sits between those galaxies and our planet.

In a series of studies published this week, the team showed that the universe is peppered with giant clusters of galaxies bunched together – regions where dark matter, too, is densely packed. But their map, which covers about one-eighth of the sky as seen from Earth, also documents patches of the universe that are nearly devoid of both dark matter and galaxies. These cluttered and empty areas appear to be connected by interstellar gas in a cosmic web.

“It shows us new parts of the universe that we’ve never seen before. We can really see this cosmic web structure, including these enormous structures called cosmic voids, which are very low-density regions of the universe where there are very few galaxies and less matter,” Niall Jeffrey, a cosmologist at University College London, told the Guardian.

The photo below shows a section of the new map; the voids are in black, while the galaxy clusters are bright orange.

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A zoomed-in view of the Dark Energy Survey’s dark matter map.

According to Jeffrey, the new findings suggest that gravity may not work the same way in these voids as it does on Earth, which would mean the standard laws of physics do not apply.

Light from 226 million galaxies

While dark matter is unobservable, the force it exerts on other things in the universe helps scientists detect it.

Dark matter bends light coming toward Earth from other galaxies, a bit like a kaleidoscope. So by measuring the intensity of that distortion, astronomers can calculate how much dark matter sits between us and another galaxy, and how smushed together that dark matter is. If a galaxy’s light is very distorted, it suggests the invisible dark matter obscuring it from view is densely clumped.

dark matter map
The DES dark matter map (in purple) superimposed on an image of the Milky Way galaxy.

So Jeffrey and his team looked at how light from more than 226 million galaxies, both nearby and billions of miles away, was getting distorted.

They used the telescope to capture images of those galaxies for 345 nights between 2013 and 2016, then relied on an artificial-intelligence program to translate those observations into their detailed map of dark matter.

The team collected data on another 413 nights before the survey ended 2019, so DES scientists plan to create an even larger, more detailed dark-matter map using the rest of their observations.

The map suggests Einstein might have been wrong

According to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, gravity should have caused chunks of matter in the universe to clump up in a predictable way after the Big Bang some 13 billion years ago.

But according to Jeffrey, the DES map suggests Einstein’s theory may have missed the mark to some degree.

“If you look out into the universe, the matter isn’t as clumpy as expected – there are hints that it is smoother,” Jeffrey told the Guardian.

“It may seem a relatively small thing,” he added, “but if these hints are true, then it may mean there’s something wrong with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, one of the great pillars of physics.”

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