After a brief hiatus due to technical difficulties, Nasa’s venerable Hubble Space Telescope is poised to recommence its scientific operations on Friday. The iconic observatory had entered a precautionary safe mode on November 23 when one of its gyroscopes, essential for orienting the telescope, began transmitting inaccurate data. As per reports, a gyro is essentially a pair of rapidly spinning wheels or a rotary device that helps a spacecraft keep its orientation in space. Hubble has four gyroscopes, and if this one can’t be brought back online, scientists will have to use two others that are still functioning to point the telescope at different parts of the Universe to record images and astronomical data.
Scientists say that even though the telescope has been “dead” for a week, it should still be able to capture stunning galactic imagery and scientific data once all the systems are brought back online.
The problem stemmed from the fact that Hubble’s payload computer—the system that controls its science instruments—went offline on June 13 for reasons still unknown. Without the computer, all of Hubble’s cameras, sensors, and other components that help the telescope snap pictures and collect data from the cosmos were unable to operate.
Engineers have been working on a series of tests to determine what went wrong with the 18-year-old hardware. According to NASA, the initial assumption was that a degrading memory module caused the computer to shut down. Then, it was thought that an issue with the computer’s central processing module or its Standard Interface hardware—which allows the CPM to communicate with other modules and systems—could have led to the shutdown as well.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of redundancy in the observatory, which was built in the 1980s and launched into space in 1990. Most of its computer systems have multiple backups. As such, once scientists figure out which part of the computer is faulty, they can remotely switch over to one of the other parts.
This isn’t the first time Hubble has faced trouble: a gyroscope glitch halted its observations in 2018, leading to the observatory entering safe mode, and another gyroscope malfunction prompted the telescope to enter safety mode again earlier this year. But the engineers who work on the telescope have a good track record of bringing it back online from previous setbacks.
They’ve already attempted to activate a backup memory module that they believe could have saved the day, but those efforts have failed so far. They will continue running tests and collecting information on the system to further isolate what’s causing the computer to fail. The next step will be to turn the telescope’s gyroscopes and other instruments back on. Hopefully, everything will go as smoothly as it has in the past. Then, Hubble can get back to its mission under the stewardship of its caretakers. We’re all rooting for it.