NASA's Hubble Space Telescope lives: Backup hardware fixes glitch

The 31-year-old space telescope had been in safe mode for a month. Now it's back to science.

Amanda Kooser
Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
2 min read

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope during deployment in 1990.

NASA/Smithsonian Institution/Lockheed Corporation

NASA's beloved Hubble Space Telescope has been facing one of its greatest challenges, a technical glitch that left it in safe mode for over a month. Last week, NASA finally tracked down the source of the issue and tried a new fix. It worked.

"NASA has successfully switched to backup hardware on the Hubble Space Telescope, including powering on the backup payload computer, on July 15," the space agency said Friday. The telescope resumed science operations over the weekend.

"I'm proud of the Hubble team, from current members to Hubble alumni who stepped in to lend their support and expertise," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement Saturday. "Thanks to their dedication and thoughtful work, Hubble will continue to build on its 31-year legacy, broadening our horizons with its view of the universe."

The Hubble team had been looking at the payload computer -- hardware dating back to the 1980s -- as the potential source of a memory problem. "A series of multi-day tests, which included attempts to restart and reconfigure the computer and the backup computer, were not successful, but the information gathered from those activities has led the Hubble team to determine that the possible cause of the problem is in the Power Control Unit," NASA said.    

As with the payload computer, the PCU is part of Hubble's Science Instrument Command and Data Handling unit. The PCU is responsible for supplying a constant and steady source of electricity to the computer and its memory. Hubble is equipped with a lot of backup systems, including a spare PCU. 

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Since the issue cropped up on June 13, Hubble's science work had been stalled. The switch to backup hardware is giving the telescope a new lease on life. "NASA anticipates that Hubble will last for many more years and will continue making groundbreaking observations, working in tandem with other space observatories including the James Webb Space Telescope to further our knowledge of the cosmos," the space agency said.

NASA operates Hubble in partnership with the European Space Agency. "We're extremely happy to announce that Hubble is back online!" ESA's Hubble team tweeted Friday. "Congratulations to the entire team that worked around the clock to make this happen."

There's been concern for the aging telescope. Its successor, the much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope, is still here on Earth, waiting for a possible late-2021 launch.

Hubble has weathered many technical glitches in its time, and the venerable telescope has persevered through this latest one. Welcome back, Hubble.

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