Hubble Science Instruments are Malfunctioning, Putting the Telescope in Safe Mode

Hubble is getting a bit long in the tooth. Initially launched in 1990, it has been one of the most spectacularly successful orbital satellites in history.  But it has also had its fair share of errors, starting almost immediately upon its launch.  Now the instruments on the telescope have been operating in a “safe mode” for more than a week, and it appears that they will remain so for at least another one.

NASA, the agency that operates Hubble, first announced that the instruments had entered safe mode via a tweet from the official Hubble account on October 25th.  The underlying cause appears to be a “synchronization error” that meant the instruments could not sync up to collect data properly.  It also meant that the instruments “remain in good health.”

Hubble is responsible for some of the most dramatic pictures in all of astronomy, such as the eXtreme Deep Field discussed in this video.

After suspending scientific operations for a week, the agency issued a press release providing more context to the issue and a potential timeline for resolution.  At 1:45 AM EDT on October 23rd, the telescope experienced a synchronization error.  NASA engineers know well the first rule of troubleshooting electronics, so they rebooted the instruments, and the problem seemed to disappear.

Until it appeared again two days later on October 25th at 2:38 AM EDT.  While a reboot might again fix the error messages, it’s better to search for and solve the underlying problem when the same error crops up twice in quick succession.  That is exactly what the NASA engineers are doing. The agency estimates that it will take another week of troubleshooting to find a potential fix to whatever might be causing the synchronization issues.

STS61 was the first servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA
STS61 was the first servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Credit: NASA

This is yet another string of issues with NASA’s most famous telescope just this year.  A botched software update took it down for a few days in March, while a malfunctioning computer required operators to switch to a backup copy, causing five weeks of downtime back in June-July of this year.

Scientists are still optimistic for Hubble’s future, though.  There are plans to continue its operation as one of NASA’s flagship telescopes until the 2030s.  Increasing numbers of maintenance issues might put a dent in those plans, but with luck, Hubble will still be producing breathtaking images for another decade or so.

Learn More:
NASA – Hubble Instruments Remain in Safe Mode, NASA Team Investigating
SpaceNews – Hubble remains in safe mode after latest glitch
SciTechDaily – Glitches Send Hubble Space Telescope Into Safe Mode – NASA Team Investigating
UT – No News Here, Just a Beautiful Globular Cluster Captured by Hubble. That is all.

Lead Image:
Hubble floating in open space.
Credit – NASA