Former NASA astronaut and Shuttle boss weigh in on fixing Hubble Space Telescope

We're still keeping everything crossed that the engineers extract a rabbit from a hat once again


Updated The outlook continues to look a little bleak for NASA's veteran Hubble telescope as a former astronaut and a Space Shuttle manager weighed in on repair options and the possibility of a fix.

NASA has remained silent on the fate of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) since an admission last week that back-up computer hardware exhibited the same behavior as the primary payload computer system, which unexpectedly halts and puts the spacecraft goes into safe mode, suspending scientific operations. Engineers have since spread the fault-finding net a little wider.

Writing on Twitter, former astronaut Clay Anderson gave voice to the fears of many, saying that he believed the observatory was "beyond repair."

NASA's take remains that the Hubble's instruments are in good shape as boffins on the ground ponder how to bring the payload computer back online.

The Register asked Anderson, a former Space Shuttle astronaut and resident of the International Space Station (ISS), if he meant not repairable on orbit (as in the old Shuttle days) or actually not recoverable. "Both," he replied.

Anderson based his opinion on his decades at NASA, both as an engineer and astronaut. While he did not rule out the possibility of a fix, he reckoned it was governed by "Clays 3 D's of Spaceflight: Danger, Difficulty, and DOLLARS!"

Wayne Hale, a former Space Shuttle Program Manager and NASA Flight Director, highlighted the challenges faced by NASA, which retired the Shuttles without replacing them with anything that matched their versatility.

Anderson, author of the astronaut memoir "The Ordinary Spaceman", did not lay claim to current NASA insider knowledge, having retired following STS-131, Space Shuttle Discovery's penultimate and longest mission. Others, however, remain optimistic for the prospects of the orbiting observatory.

The Register asked NASA how things were going and was told that an update was in the works, but in the meantime "The Hubble operations team is working to solve the payload computer issue onboard the Hubble Space Telescope.

"The team is working to collect all the data available to them to isolate the problem and determine the best path forward for bringing the computer back to operations. At this time, there is no definitive timeline for bringing the computer back online."

We continue to fervently hope that Anderson is mistaken and the talented team of NASA engineers come up with a solution that restores the telescope to working order, even if a visit by astronauts with spare parts is most definitely not on the cards. ®

Updated to add

On Wednesday, NASA updated its webpage tracking the ongoing work to bring the telescope back to normal condition. The team is considering switching to other backup hardware within the instrument to see if that clears whatever is causing the system to lock up and stop working. Switching over to that equipment is more tricky than booting up the backup payload computer, though.

The agency stated:

The source of the computer problem lies in the Science Instrument Command and Data Handling (SI C&DH) unit, where the payload computer resides. A few hardware pieces on the SI C&DH could be the culprit(s).

The team is currently scrutinizing the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF), which sends and formats commands and data. They are also looking at a power regulator within the Power Control Unit, which is designed to ensure a steady voltage supply to the payload computer’s hardware. If one of these systems is determined to be the likely cause, the team must complete a more complicated operations procedure to switch to the backup units.

Over the next week or so, the team will review and update all of the operations procedures, commands and other related items necessary to perform the switch to backup hardware. They will then test their execution against a high-fidelity simulator.


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