Update: Hubble took its first picture since it went into safe mode on June 13th! More info here.
On Sunday, June 13th, the Hubble Space Telescope gave the astronomical community a fright when its payload computer suddenly stopped working. This prompted the main computer to put the telescope and its scientific instruments into safe mode. What followed was many tense weeks as the operations team for the HST tried to figure out what the source of the problem was and come up with a strategy for turning Hubble back on.
On Friday, July 17th, after more than a month of checking, re-checking, and attempted restarts, the operations team for Hubble identified the root of the problem and restored power to the telescope’s hardware and all of its instruments. Science operations can now resume, and the pioneering space telescope that gave us over thirty years of dedicated astronomy, cosmology, and astrophysics, still has some life in her!
Things are not looking very good for the Hubble Space Telescope right now. On Sunday, June 13th, the telescope’s payload computer suddenly stopped working, prompting the main computer to put the telescope into safe mode. While the telescope itself and its science instruments remain in working order, science operations have been suspended until the operations team can figure out how to get the payload computer back online.
While attempting to restart the computer, the operations team has also tried to trace the issue to specific components in the payload computer and switch to their backup modules. As of June 30th, the team began looking into the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF) and the Power Control Unit (PCU). Meanwhile, NASA is busy preparing and testing procedures to switch to backup hardware if either of these components are the culprit.
It looks like a poster of the famous Hubble Deep Field, marked with white streaks by a child, or put away carelessly and scratched in the process. But it’s not. The white streaks aren’t accidents; they’re the paths of asteroids.
The HubbleSpace Telescope is the oldest space telescope in operation, having spent the past twenty-eight years in orbit. Nevertheless, this mission is still hard at work revealing things about our Solar System, neighboring exoplanets, and some of the farthest reaches of the Universe. And every so often, it also captures an image that happens to turn up something interesting and unexpected.
Recently, while conducting a study of Abell 370, a galaxy cluster located approximately four billion light-years away in the constellation Cetus (the Sea Monster), Hubble managed to spot something in foreground. While observing this collection of several hundred galaxiess, the image was photobombed by 22 asteroids whose tails created streaks that looked like background astronomical phenomena.
The study was part of the Frontier Fields program, where Hubble has captured images of some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe (aka. “relic galaxies”) in order to determine how it evolved over time. The position of this asteroid field is near the ecliptic (the plane of our Solar System) where most asteroids reside, which is why Hubble astronomers saw so many crossings.
In the past, Hubble has recorded many instances of asteroid trails when conducting observations along a line-of-sight near the plane of our Solar System. In this case, the Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) – which orbit Earth at an average distance of about 260 million km (161.5 million mi) – were previously undetected due to their faintness. But thanks to the images taken by Hubble, scientists were able to identify them manually based on their motion.
Of the 22 asteroids, five were identified as unique objects. The image was assembled from several exposures taken in visible and infrared light, which was first released on November 6th, 2017. The image was prepared in honor of “Asteroid Day”, a global annual event that takes place every June 30th to raise awareness about asteroids and what can be done to protect Earth from a possible impact.
The day falls on the anniversary of the Tunguska event, which took place on June 30th, 1918, in eastern Russia and resulted in the flattening of 2,000 square km (770 square mi) of forest. While far less harmful than the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event – which took place 66 million years ago and is believed to have killed the dinosaurs – Tunguska was the most harmful asteroid event in recorded history.
In many of the images snapped by Hubble, the asteroid tails appeared as white trails that look like curved streaks, an effect caused by parallax. In astronomy, parallax is an observational effect where the apparent position of an object appears to be different based on different lines of sight. Basically, as Hubble orbited around the Earth and took several images of the galaxy, the asteroids appeared to be moving relative to the background stars and galaxies.
The asteroids own motion along their orbits and other contributing factors also led to their streaked appearance. Whereas the white streaks were identified as asteroid tails, the blue streaks are distorted images of distant galaxies behind the cluster. This effect is known as gravitational lensing, where light from distant objects is warped and magnified by the presence of an intervening object.
In this case, the intervening object who’s gravitational force magnified the light of the background galaxies was Abell 370. These more distant galaxies are too distant for Hubble to see directly, hence why astronomers use the technique to study the most distant objects in the Universe. But whereas the blue streaks were expected, the white streaks caused by asteroids took scientists completely by surprise!
This year, the European Space Agency (ESA) is co-hosting a live webcast with the European Southern Observatory (ESO) with expert interviews, news on some the most recent asteroid research, and a discussion about what killed the dinosaurs. You can watch this event tomorrow starting at 13:00 CEST (11:00 UST/04:00 PST) by going to the ESA’s Asteroid Day web page.
“Hubble: Galaxies Across Space and Time” is an award-winning IMAX Super Short film. In less than 3 minutes you can explore 10 billion years of cosmic history as you fly through one of Hubble’s iconic images, the Hubble Deep Field. These galaxies were photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope as part of the Great Observatory Origins Deep Survey (GOODS) project. Hubble scientists and imaging specialists worked for months to extract individual galaxy images, placing them in a 3-D model according to their approximate true distances.
If you ever have the chance to see the big screen version of “Hubble 3-D IMAX,” do it. It’s an incredible cinematic view that portrays the immensity and gloriousness of our Universe like no other film I’ve seen. You can read my review of it here.
The Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) combines Hubble observations taken over the past decade of a small patch of sky in the constellation of Fornax. With a total of over two million seconds of exposure time, it is the deepest image of the Universe ever made. Credit: credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team
Oh my! The Hubble Space Telescope has just outdone itself, taking the deepest-ever view of the Universe. But the new image really is a compilation of work over the past ten years, as the eXtreme Deep Field, or XDF was assembled by combining ten years of observations, with over 2 million seconds of exposure time, taken of a patch of sky in the center of the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field from 2004. The XDF is a small fraction of the angular diameter of the full Moon.