Uh oh, Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 is Down

On January 8th, an important piece of equipment on the Hubble Space Telescope went down. The Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) suspended its operations because of a hardware. The Hubble team is investigating the anomaly, and during this time the space telescope’s other instruments are working normally and continuing their science operations.

The WFC3 was installed on the Hubble in 2009. It replaced the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2). The WFC3 is the most technologically advanced instrument on the Hubble, and it has captured some of the most stunning and famous images ever captured.

The WFC3 detected some anomalous voltage ranges in its electronics and autonomously suspended its operations as a designed safety precaution. Instrument engineers and developers and other specialists are working on the problem. They’re gathering as much telemetry and onboard memory information as they can to try and understand the sequence of events that lead to the shut down.

Astronauts at work during Servicing Mission 4, in 2009. The WFC3 is the center white panel. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble.

Once they figure out the root cause of the voltage anomaly, they can construct a plan to recover the WFC3. The camera has redundant electronics that can take over operation, but the team needs to know what happened to cause the problem in the first place.

However, the ongoing government shutdown in the USA might be impacting the efforts, just as it’s impacting other science around the country, world, and in space. In a tweet, NASA Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, seemed to express some frustration about the government shutdown.

The WFC3 has two separate sensors and can capture images in both visible light and in Infrared light. This makes it a very powerful instrument, and one that’s been indispensable in astronomy since it was installed.

It’s responsible for many iconic space images.

A WFC3 infrared view of the iconic Horsehead Nebula. Image Credit: By ESA/Hubble, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25666692.
Another haunting, ethereal image form the Hubble’s WFC3. The Butterfly Nebula is a structure of super-heated gas travelling through space at more than 600,000 miles per hour. It’s driven by the dying star at the center. This is a composite UV and visible light image captured by WFC3 in 2009. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team
The Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula. The WFC3 captured this image in 2014. It’s a higher-resolution image taken as a tribute to the original Hubble image of the P of C in 1995. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team.

The team working on the WFC3 hasn’t said much yet. But the Hubble’s three other instruments are operating normally. They are the Advanced Camera for Surveys, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph.


Evan Gough

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