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Hubble trouble doubled

The Hubble Space Telescope has faced a series of malfunctions in the last few weeks.

An attempt to revive the malfunctioning Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits Earth, didn't go as scientists had planned.

An attempt to revive the malfunctioning Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits Earth, didn't go as scientists had planned.

NASA/STScI

If you’re already concerned about the ailing Hubble Space Telescope, the drama continues.

On September 27, technical difficulties shut down the telescope, and it stopped sending information to Earth. On October 15, NASA engineers were able to reboot the system, and immediately the telescope sent data back to Earth again. All seemed well.

But the next day, on October 16, several malfunctions shut the telescope down again. These developments are the latest in a series of setbacks for the famous space telescope. The Hubble has been orbiting Earth for 18 years. During that time, it has taken many spectacular and groundbreaking images.

The original problem, in late September, started with a device that collects scientific data from the telescope’s instruments and turns that data into images that people can admire and study. When the device failed, however, the images stopped flowing in.

But the scientists were in luck. Hubble had a backup version of the damaged equipment, called the science instrument control and data handling system. On October 15, to get the equipment up and running again, the scientists switched on this backup.

The data-collection device has to work together with a bunch of other instruments on the telescope. So, after the engineers had switched over to the backup, they turned on several of these other instruments to make sure they were communicating correctly.

A data formatting instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope has malfunctioned, leaving the orbiting observatory unable to transmit information to Earth.

A data formatting instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope has malfunctioned, leaving the orbiting observatory unable to transmit information to Earth.

NASA

Satisfied that the switch went well, the scientists turned the instruments back off, putting them into a state of hibernation. The instruments had been in this same “safe mode” since the original malfunction in September.

After a series of tests and adjustments, the engineers gradually started to wake up these instruments. But the team ran into trouble the next day, October 16, when two problems caused the wake-up to stop.

In an October 17 teleconference, NASA scientists said that it was too soon to know exactly what’s gone wrong.

“We are in the early stages of going through a mountain of data that has been downloaded,” said Art Whipple, manager of the Hubble Systems Management Office at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., at the teleconference. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

After looking through all of the data, scientists concluded that these latest problems were not serious and didn’t cause any lasting damage to Hubble. In fact, the team is going to try to wake up Hubble’s science equipment again on October 25.

Hubble faces some other troubles, too. Glitches since 2007 have put a few of the telescope’s instruments out of operation, including the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer.

Repairs on those instruments will have to wait until February 2009, when a team of astronauts will head up to Hubble on a servicing mission. The trip, it seems, will be a busy one.

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