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Hubble Space Telescope may now depend on a computer that hasn't booted since 2009

Perhaps instrument-halting failure is due to compute and interconnect hardware, not memory, after all

The Hubble Space Telescope may need to boot up a backup computer that's been dormant since 2009 to carry on operations.

Science work by the orbiting rig came to a halt on June 13 after the computer tasked with controlling the instruments stopped responding to the main computer, and its sensors were put into safe mode as a precaution. Attempts to restart the system as normal have been unsuccessful, leaving the telescope largely useless.

At first, NASA thought the issue was down to a memory module that had failed due to an accumulation of radiation damage, which was causing the instrumentation computer to lock up. Switching to a backup memory module didn't fix the problem. Now the agency says the memory errors may be a symptom of another fault, rather than the root cause, and it may be time to switch to a backup instrument computer.

Specifically, the agency believes the current instrument computer's Central Processing Module (CPM) and Standard Interface (STINT), which connects the CPM to Hubble's other systems, may be broken, and thus hopes the backup instrument computer's CPM and STINT are in working shape. NASA may therefore power up the backup computer and test it before making it the active instrumentation computer and restoring Hubble's scientific operations.

“The team has run tests to try and isolate the problem,” a NASA spokesperson told The Register.

“These have included tests on numerous memory modules. After reviewing the schematics and test results, indications are that the problem is likely in the Standard Interface (STINT) or the Central Processing Module (CPM) that interfaces to those items and not in the memory modules. The next tests will be on the STINT and CPM.”

The backup computer has not been powered on since its installation in 2009

Hubble was launched in 1990, and back when NASA had the capability to reach it, the space telescope was upgraded as needed. The unit containing the computer systems worked well for 18 years though suffered a fault in 2008, and in 2009, the unit was replaced. Now it may be time to see if the backup instrument computer – known formally as the backup payload computer – in that unit is working. We note that the replacement unit contains the same 1980s-era parts as the original computer unit.

In an update on its website, the agency noted:

If the backup payload computer’s CPM and STINT hardware is turned on, several days will be required to assess the computer performance and restore normal science operations. The backup computer has not been powered on since its installation in 2009; however, it was thoroughly tested on the ground prior to installation on the spacecraft.

NASA is confident the telescope will get back to normal. “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,” the spokesperson added. ®

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