NASA Has a New Plan to Wake Up the Hubble Space Telescope

NASA Has a New Plan to Wake Up the Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope. (Photo: NASA)

Hubble Space Telescope, with all but one of its science instruments currently in safe mode, could soon be back in business, as mission team members prepare to roll out a recovery plan.

The Advanced Camera for Surveys instrument is the only science tool currently working on Hubble. NASA revived this camera on November 7, and it’s been gathering scientific data ever since. This particular instrument was the first to be brought back from safe mode because it has the smallest potential of creating future complications should lost synchronisation messages continue to occur, according to NASA.

Synchronisation messages, which allow Hubble’s instruments to accurately respond to data requests and commands, have been pegged to this latest Hubble headache. The 31-year-old telescope is otherwise fine, but a flurry of missing synchronisation messages caused its science instruments to automatically enter into safe mode on October 25. Team members have been searching for the root cause of the problem ever since, requiring NASA to suspend Hubble’s usual astronomical duties.

With the Advanced Camera for Surveys back online and functioning properly, the team is now looking to revive Hubble’s other instruments, as NASA explained in a statement. No additional missed synchronisation messages have been detected since November 1, another good sign.

Mission specialists have apparently found a way for Hubble’s science instruments to track and respond to missed synchronisation messages and not have the entire space telescope go to sleep as a result. Hubble’s payload computer, which monitors, controls, and coordinates Hubble’s science instruments, will similarly be modified. The proposed changes mean the telescope will truck through and keep working in the event of multiple missed synchronisation messages. NASA says these changes won’t pose a danger to Hubble.

In terms of next steps, the team needs to determine the order in which it will restore Hubble’s science instruments, followed by tests to make sure the modifications are working as intended. They’re also going to keep looking for the root cause of the error, which hasn’t been identified. NASA expects the reboot to take several weeks, and while the next instrument to be restored has not been chosen, the team intends to look at the steps needed to restore Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3.

Nothing is set in stone at this point, and no estimate has been given for when Hubble will fully return to normal operations. The space telescope has glitched out many times before — this is the third time this year that Hubble has gone into safe mode — but NASA has managed to bring it back each time.

In related news, NASA has extended the Hubble operations contract. The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) in Washington was awarded the $US215 ($295) million extension, which expires on June 30, 2026. As before, AURA will support Hubble at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The contract covers science ground system development, science operations, the management of science research awards, public outreach support, and the archival of mission data at the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said the space agency expects Hubble to “have many more years of science ahead, and to work in tandem with the James Webb Space Telescope,” which is scheduled to launch on December 18 from French Guiana.

Indeed, this latest setback notwithstanding, there’s no reason to believe that Hubble, launched in 1990, can’t continue working until the next decade. Just gotta keep gettin’ over the hurdles this cranky telescope keeps throwing at us.