Hubble’s cosmic science is mind-blowing, but its soul celebrates something surprising about us
That which is born of the hack is hard to kill
Column As these words are written, the Hubble SpaceTelescope is out of commission, victim of a computer fault yet to be diagnosed. It still orbits 550km up, still automatically aiming itself at targets in this galaxy and others. But it is a zombie dance. Its instruments are blind and deaf, waiting for instructions from an onboard controller that lies silent.
There is no need and no way to list the astonishing science and equally astonishing cultural impact Hubble has produced in more than 30 years aloft. The Pillars of Creation image, a psychedelic stellar nursery of interstellar dust windblown into colossal shapes by the birth exhalation of the young stars they brought into existence, may be the most iconic space image since Apollo 8’s Earthrise and Apollo 17’s Blue Marble. Except it looks outwards, not inwards – for those who hunger for knowledge beyond ourselves, it is the finest of the three.
Oh yes, about that outwards thing. It’s a telescope, so of course it looks up, up and away. Yet that central fact points to something deeper about Hubble’s essence, a part of its nature that makes it just as much a monument to another aspect of human endeavour as the astronomy it performs. For what Hubble is, the thing that gave it birth, what got it up there and what has kept it going is a galactic hack. At Hubble's heart is one of the finest sustained bodges in the history of mankind.
Much of the genetics of Hubble – especially its main optics, but quite possibly other aspects of its design, too – come from an industry intent on looking down, not up, namely the spymasters of America’s National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO. This body is in charge of the USA’s fleet of spy satellites, one model of which has been strongly linked to the Hubble project.
Little is known of the KH-11, except that the mirrors of the later models are 2.4 metres across, the same size as Hubble’s. NASA is on record as saying this is no coincidence.
Hubble's instruments and that darn payload computer have nothing to do with spycraft, of course, as the NRO rarely wants to investigate faint details of the spectroscopy of very distant objects. But it is incontrovertible that the system which hoisted Hubble into the heavens and carried out the five service missions – the Space Shuttle – was designed to do the same for spy satellites. So the telescope's sizes, protocols and parameters all flow from there. Hubble has spy DNA in its genes: swords hacked into ploughshares.
And oh yes, that mirror. Younger readers won’t recall the shock at first light when a tiny mistake in its shape made the star of the show useless. Nobody’s saying how many spybirds were similarly afflicted, but where it mattered the most, Hubble was blind. And although the HST was designed to be serviced, that didn’t include swapping out 800kg of ultra-precision glass from the heart of the beast.
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What was needed was another hack, and the one that flew on the first service mission was a stone-cold audacious classic of the my-god-it-might-just-work edge of believability that marks the very best of the best bodgerissimae.
We are not worthy even of the name – COSTAR, for Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement. Justice cannot be done here to the bonkers system of flip-out levers, lenses, widgets and dewonkifiers fitted into a package that replaced one of Hubble’s science instruments. After what one can only assume was the most extensive of testing, the uberhack was flown up, plugged in and… it worked. Every picture you’ve seen that took your breath away is courtesy of COSTAR.
Since then, Hubble has had plenty of breakdowns and crack-ups. Space is hard, and living thirty years in space while doing bob-on science is proof of genius, dedication, ingenuity and sheer love that you won’t find in many projects. The four servicing missions didn’t all go according to plan: bolts seized, things that should have slid did not slide. But in each case, humans on the spot and on the ground found ways to repurpose, force and otherwise finagle their way past the problem.
It turns out that fixing spy satellites in orbit is a daft idea that nobody wants to pay for, so there are now no more shuttles. There will be no more fixit missions. If Hubble can be rescued from its current crisis, it will be by remote control, and anyone who’s tried to diagnose a bus fault in a Commodore 64 knows that 80s tech is hard enough when it's on the bench in front of you. Perhaps the backup computer will work if it needs to be woken from its 15 year slumber? We’ll find out together.
Some might say it’s time to move on. A lot of Hubble’s science can now be done from the ground, after 30 years of huge advances in observatory engineering. Astronomy has moved into its industrial age, cataloguing and re-cataloguing stars by the millions and billions. The James Webb Space Telescope may yet fly after so many years of delay, and it might even work when it gets there.
But maybe let’s not move on just yet. Hubble is still in huge demand. It’s a priceless asset, called on to provide unique observations – you’ll still find it mentioned in many a report of some new phenomenon. It, like Arecibo, is just too good at what it does to be retired if there’s any alternative. And with Hubble, the next glorious hack is always just around the corner. ®