Hubble’s main camera in safe mode


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The coming dark age: The Wide Field Camera on the Hubble Space Telescope has experienced “an anomaly” that has forced its shut down.

The announcement is a mere one paragraph long, and provides no further information.

This camera was installed on the space telescope during the last shuttle mission in 2009. It is now almost a decade since that mission, which was expected to extend Hubble’s life for at least five years. It is therefore not surprising that things are beginning to fail. In October they had a serious gyroscope problem when a gyroscope failed and they had problems getting their last back-up gyroscope to work. They got it working, but this has left us with a telescope with no gyroscope backups. With the next failure they will have to shift to one gyroscope mode, meaning sharp images will no longer be possible. Now the main camera has shut down.

Unfortunately, it appears that we are reaching the end of Hubble’s life span. The sad thing is that this shouldn’t be necessary. It can be repaired, but this would require a robot mission, something that would have been very difficult a decade ago but is quite doable at a reasonable cost today. No such mission is being considered however.

Even worse, the bad planning that is routine for our modern intellectual class has left us with no replacement, for the foreseeable future. In the late 1990s the astronomy community chose this path, deciding to replace Hubble with an infrared space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope. They and NASA also decided to push the limits of engineering with Webb, resulting in a project that is about a decade behind schedule with a budget that has ballooned from $1 billion to $9 billion. Meanwhile, there has been no money for any other major space telescopes. And the one the astronomy community proposed in 2011, WFIRST, is already over budget and behind schedule, in its design phase.

The astronomy community has also decided in the past two decades that it could replace Hubble with giant ground-based telescopes, a decision that has so far proven to be problematic. Though adaptive optics can eliminate some of the fuzziness caused by the atmosphere, it limits observations to very narrow fields of view, meaning it cannot obtain large mosaics of big objects, such as this Hubble release earlier this week of an image of the nearby Triangulum Galaxy. Moreover, almost all of the giant ground-based telescopes built so far have struggled with many engineering issues.

In terms of astronomy, we are thus about to go blind, returning to the days prior to the space age when our view of the heavens was fuzzy and out of focus.

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5 comments

  • Jason Hillyer

    I wonder if a Crew Dragon w/ crew could do a spacewalk to restore Hubble, like so many shuttle crews have done in years past. The lower cost might prove to be an incentive that can’t be ignored anymore.

    Also: I hope that when these famous satlittes are decommissioned, that we are able to, and willing, to bring them back to Earth’s surface safely. They would make marvelous museum pieces.

  • Jason Hillyer: In a word. no. Crew Dragon does not have the robot arm, space, spacesuits, equipment, or design to do such a thing. Period.

    This is not something that can be done simply. However, it is also something that can be done. The fastest tool to do it now would be a robot mission.

  • Col Beausabre

    Bob, I would presume that Hubble could be placed in “safe” mode pending a repair mission someday, right? Although, if it loses the last gyro and is spinning out of control, I’m afraid it’s space junk, as it would be wildly dangerous to get alongside on repair flight.

  • Col Beausabre: Once Hubble is down to only one gyroscope it must be de-orbited, as it will no longer be controllable after that last gyro goes. This is why, when they lose one of today’s three working gyros they will immediately go to one-gyro-mode, saving the second gyro as a backup.

    The need to do this is made more urgent in that Hubble presently has no way to be de-orbited in a controlled manner. A de-orbit engine must be attached to it. NASA has laid out plans for building and launching this, but has so far done nothing to get the project started.

    I personally would prefer that they instead put together a robot repair mission that would include the engine, and allow it to maintain Hubble’s orbit for as long as it can be fixed and operating. Based on its history, there is no reason this telescope cannot operate for decades more. All it needs are periodic instrument and gyro upgrades.

  • m d mill

    NASA is as joke…a typical federal bureaucracy indicative of “the bad planning that is routine for our modern “intellectual” [bureaucrat] class”.
    The national debt increases now at over 1 trillion per year.
    And neo-socialist are poised to take over the entire federal government (note: Beto O’Rourke was extremely competitive in the quintessential “RED” state of Texas).

    Is the death spiral is about to begin ie “The coming dark age”?
    Almost certainly Yes…the character of the American public has changed fundamentally, for many reasons.
    When the parasites out number the productive hosts..the organism dies.
    Perhaps Sweden et al can get away with the welfare state for a time because the percentage of parasites in the society is sufficiently low. Not so here, today.
    This was a great nation not long ago, in fact the greatest in the history of the world…how quickly things change.

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