Hubble Repairs Hit the Brakes

Oops, Hubble did it again.

As the media touting Hubble’s revival late last night, NASA engineers ran smack into Murphy’s Law: A pair of seemingly unrelated glitches snarled efforts to fix the science data formatter, the bit on the space telescope that sends its collected information back to Earth.

The primary formatter had failed on September 27, so engineers had sent Hubble into safe mode to remotely switch to an onboard backup system.

It was smooth sailing until yesterday afternoon, when something snagged during calibration of two of the science instruments that feed data into the formatter.

“We experienced an issue late yesterday on Hubble that we’re still troubleshooting,” Goddard spokesperson Ed Campion told National Geographic News this morning.

“We’ve stopped trying to activate science.”

NatGeo News reporter Anne Minard was right on top of the action—you can read her breaking report on the events posted this morning, as well as a more detailed followup based on an afternoon press conference.

No doubt the flurry of drama will revive concerns about the cost and effort of maintaining Hubble. It’s an 18-year-old piece of equipment, after all, and it relies on human intervention via the also aging and highly controversial shuttle program to keep everything operational.


One of Hubble’s most famous images, the “pillars of creation” in the Eagle nebula

—Photograph courtesy NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University)

But Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, isn’t due for launch until 2013, leaving quite a gap in data collection if we let the old boy go.

With the U.S. in the grip of an escalating financial crisis, will the public balk at the millions of dollars it will take to get Hubble once again up to its fullest potential? Or will the telescope’s reputation for eye-popping visuals keep it afloat no matter the cost?

America, how much is Hubble worth to you?

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