Hubble trouble

posted at 10:08 am on January 30, 2007 by Bryan

Its great eye on the universe is giving up the ghost.

The Hubble Space Telescope’s main camera — the ACS (advanced camera for surveys) — has stopped working. It went into safe mode early Saturday morning, and engineers for the space telescope have little hope it can be fixed.

The ACS was installed in 2002 and increased the discovery capability of the telescope by a factor of 10. It consists of three electronic cameras, filters and dispersers that can detect light from the ultraviolet to the near-infrared end of the spectrum and had become the primary instrument of the telescope. The ACS was valuable to astronomers because it could take deep imaging surveys of clusters of galaxies, allowing scientists to study these environments. Hubble still has other cameras which look at different spectrums that are still operating.

NASA has scheduled a shuttle mission to fly to Hubble in September 2008, but that mission is so full already that Preston Burch, Hubble associate director at the Goddard Space Flight Center, says he doesn’t believe a spacewalk to fix the camera is possible.

“It’s not as easy or straightforward to fix ACS as it is to fix the STIS [space telescope imaging spectrograph] camera,” he says. “In order to access the box cover and restore capability we would need to turn off the cooling system, and disconnect connections to the control module. It’s a big job, the area is pretty limited; we are already challenged enough to do the other repairs and this spacewalk would be considerably more labor-intensive.”

I was at Kennedy and then at Johnson for the shuttle mission during which astronauts installed ACS. That mission was the highlight of my time on the HST project, so for me personally it’s more than a little sad to hear that the ACS is dying or dead. ACS has been an incredible instrument and has accomplished more than it was planned to do. Fixing it on orbit would be, as Mr. Burch says, next to impossible. The cameras are built for a sort of plug and play installation on Hubble, which has several complex support systems on board that all need tending to during astronaut visits. The cameras were never intended to be serviced themselves on orbit, though at least one, the near-infrared camera, was outfitted with a cooling system during the same mission that saw the ACS installation. That mission should go down as one of the most intricate space missions in history.

The good news is that NASA is on board with a last servicing mission and the Wide Field Camera 3, which astronauts will install during that mission, will pick up where ACS leaves off in many important ways. Like ACS, WFC3 will be a visible light camera so it will keep Hubble in the pretty picture business for a few more years. WFC3 will expand Hubble’s discovery capabilities beyond ACS, as will the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph which will also be installed during SM4 (though the latter won’t take great pictures).

WFC3

Wide Field Camera 3

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my husband worked on the optics for the Hubble way back when. In fact, he put the “eyeglasses” on the thing.
The fact that it is now going down is very sad to us…

Babs on January 30, 2007 at 10:42 AM

I blame Bush.

Labamigo on January 30, 2007 at 10:42 AM

Hubble itself still has a few years of life left in her. SM4 will see to that.

Your husband worked on the COSTAR? Coooool.

Bryan on January 30, 2007 at 10:46 AM

Little sad for me too. A relative of mine is an Aerospace EE with some interest in the Hubble.
For me? Its a daily must link on my personal home page, it is truly astounding what they’ve done so far.
B, you were there? Cool, very cool.

shooter on January 30, 2007 at 10:46 AM

Bryan,

Got any friends at Tidbinbilla (CDSCC)?

One of my best mate’s father, Peter Churchill, was Station Director there until recently.

MKR on January 30, 2007 at 11:05 AM

Yeah, I was on the project for 8 years. My officemate for the last couple years was the man in charge of processing all of the imagery. Given the way the Hubble data pipeline works, he’ll probably have new images coming out of the ACS for as long as a year from now. I doubt we’ll see much interruption in public releases, even if new science isn’t being done with the ACS any longer.

I don’t know of any friends of mine at Tidbinbilla, but people do move around the space program so it’s possible someone I knew at some point might be there now.

Bryan on January 30, 2007 at 11:12 AM

It would be nice to see them find a mission where the shuttle is returning with very little cargo, then add on a two-day mission extension to part out the hubble and bring home the chassis. They could de-orbit the wings and much of the shielding. I”m sure that a re-build of the Hubble would be far less expensive than the first go round and we won’t have the need for the eyeglasses if we do the mirror right.

I’d venture to say that if NASA were to bring down the majority of materials and transfer it to a private/public concern that the free market would cover the rebuild.

Jason Coleman on January 30, 2007 at 11:15 AM

Doubble Bubble Hubble Trouble Say that 10 times fast!!

Mazztek on January 30, 2007 at 11:23 AM

They discussed missions like that at length over the past several years. The bottom line is that Hubble was built to go up and stay but it’s too delicate to survive re-entry in a shuttle (or outside a shuttle, obviously). And it’s too unsafe for the astronauts to bring the main body back. Shuttles are dangerous enough vehicles as they are. It’s a shame. Hubble’s impact on astronomy is incredible, but we’ll lose the physical instruments that did all the work in a few years. Let the conspiracy theories begin…

Hubble’s engineering model is at the Air & Space Museum in DC. It’s not a replica–it’s the body that didn’t fly in 1990. They also have the mirror blank there too and one of the instruments that astronauts removed on an earlier SM. It’s not the Hubble body that flew, but it’s as close as we’ll ever get.

Bryan on January 30, 2007 at 11:26 AM

Bryan, is there a replacement for Hubble in the pipeline?

Number 2 on January 30, 2007 at 11:31 AM

Sort of. The James Webb Space Telescope (named after a NASA administrator, not the senator) is supposed to launch circa 2014. It’ll be a serious discovery machine, but one of its drawbacks will be that it will operate in the infrared. That means the science will be astounding but the pictures won’t be a pretty as Hubble’s have been. Additionally, to get it cold enough to image deep enough in the IR, it’ll sit at a point which is about 1 million miles from earth (Hubble is 350 miles up in orbit around earth, within range of the shuttles so that it could be serviced and upgraded on orbit). That means the JWST won’t be servicable by astronauts, so if something breaks there’s no way to fix or replace anything.

All of which means that while the JWST will be an amazing spacecraft, it’s unlikely to capture the public’s imagination the way Hubble has.

Bryan on January 30, 2007 at 11:38 AM

I get the impression the various imaging systems are relatively modular, so I was wondering about the feasibility of replacing, rather than reparing the ACS system. I’m assuming the cost of a new system is trivial compared to the cost of getting it there and that removing the system isn’t significantly harder than installing it in the first place.

In response to the previous question, there is a replacement (the Webb telescope) in the works, but it will still be several years before it is operational. I know a lot of scientists would like to keep Hubble alive until Webb goes operational.

taznar on January 30, 2007 at 11:42 AM

Sort of. The James Webb Space Telescope (named after a NASA administrator, not the senator) is supposed to launch circa 2014.

If it was named after the senator, it would be myopically focused on Iraq to the exclusion of the rest of the universe.

thirteen28 on January 30, 2007 at 11:49 AM

Bryan, the telescope might be servicable by the new Orion spacecraft. Admittedly, that may be rather iffy, since the distance you are talking of for the new telescope is nearly 4 times the average distance between the earth and moon.

However, I do understand that the Orion is the first step towards a human presence on Mars, so it is not inconceivable that it could also be used to service manmade objects in earth (or near earth) orbit.

Natrium on January 30, 2007 at 12:10 PM

Too bad. Some of the most amazing images I have ever seen came from there.

Very interesting that so many of you were closely connected with it.

LegendHasIt on January 30, 2007 at 1:50 PM

Maybe the Chinese pointed a laser light beam into the great eye.

My eye…

My red eye…!

Kokonut on January 30, 2007 at 2:34 PM

Servicing isn’t just about the astronaut vehicles. Hubble was built with grapples inside and out and was cofigured from the beginning to allow for on-orbit servicing. JWST isn’t being built that way–it’s just not in the design at all.

Bryan on January 30, 2007 at 4:34 PM

Hey I have an idea ! How about a twin shuttle mission. Two paylaods could surely acommidate the neccesary payload. We call it the double bubble the fix the hubble! Besides I live a half hour from The Cape and those missions are awesome. The last one was a P.M. lift off. It was very cool. Upon re-entry Senator Bill Nelson D-FL narrated the event live on local TV. I must say the man must have spent years in aviation and aeronautics cause he knew his stuff. He was proud as a peacock about the mission. I like his personality. I think he is a Democratic disentor on the no surge resolution.

sonnyspats1 on January 30, 2007 at 8:23 PM

They are currently talking about recovery of some of the capability of the bad camera (maybe 1/3) if they can get the scoop on the actual failure component and restart the #1 side of the electronics again. (the #2 is what smoked)

Meanwhile Hubble has two otherinstruments running fine and folks on a waiting list for science from those instruments are now excited becuase they can squeeze those observations in now.

Give them time to assess it all. They may surprise us with some other brainstorm of a fix before the overhaul in 2008.

johnnyU on January 30, 2007 at 10:46 PM

Thank you Bryan for featuring this. I’ve said this before but one of the sadest things for me is that we spend so much money on nonsense when we could spend it on more space exploration/programs.

The people who work in this domain are so dedicated and special, many multiple PHd’d, and yet so unpretentious. A special breed, indeed.

Entelechy on January 31, 2007 at 1:20 AM