Hubble Space Telescope Camera Fails and Government Shutdown Prevents Repairs

The Hubble Space Telescope suffered a major setback on January 8th, as its primary camera shut down without warning. Mission controllers are blaming a hardware issue for the problem.

The partial government shutdown in the United States could hamper repair of the world’s most famous space-based telescope. Many NASA staff are on indefinite leave while the federal government is caught in an impasse over the budget and the construction of a wall on the border between Mexico and the United States.

“Hubble will continue to perform science observations with its other three active instruments, while the Wide Field Camera 3 anomaly is investigated. Wide Field Camera 3, installed during Servicing Mission 4 in 2009, is equipped with redundant electronics should they be needed to recover the instrument,” NASA officials reported on their website.

Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope seen orbiting above the Earth. Image: NASA

The wide field camera three (WFC3) aboard Hubble was installed by astronauts in 2009. Capable of taking images in visible light, as well as ultraviolet and near-infrared, it was used to discover the 14th moon of Neptune, as well as some of the five moons of Pluto. For most people on Earth, its greatest contribution may be the wealth of images it has returned of distant galaxies, nebulae, and the planets of our solar system.

WFC3 Installation
The installation of the WFC3 camera onto the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009. Image: NASA

In addition to the WFC3, Hubble is equipped with one other imaging device, and two spectroscopes, which break light into “rainbows” to study the composition and velocity of distant bodies. The vehicle orbits the Earth at an altitude of approximately 565 kilometers (350 miles) above our home world, traveling at 27,350 kilometers per hour (17,000 MPH). When it is “locked on” a target, Hubble does not vary its orientation by more than 7/1000 of an arcsecond (one arcsecond is 1/3600 of a degree). This accuracy is equivalent to pointing the telescope at a human hair seen from a distance of one mile. While doing so, Hubble returns 150 gigabits of data to controllers on Earth each week.

The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, was serviced by astronauts five times, performing repairs and upgrades. In October 2018, the failure of a gyroscope led to a three-week period in which astronomers using the space telescope were unable to properly orientate the observatory toward a desired target. That problem with the nearly thirty-year-old telescope was solved by controllers on the ground.

The James Webb Space Telescope, hailed by some astronomers as “the successor to Hubble,” is currently due for launch in the Spring of 2021, although that date has been postponed a number of times. Until Webb launches successfully and starts returning results to Earth, Hubble remains the most advanced optical telescope in space, providing views unseen before by the human race.

WFC3 prelaunch
The WFC3 undergoing processing on the ground, prior to launch to the Hubble Space Telescope. Image: NASA

Only a skeleton crew of workers on the Hubble program are currently working while the government shutdown continues. Science operations for Hubble at the Space Telescope Science Institute are continuing through money allocated by NASA prior to the government shutdown. However, technical experts, based at the Goddard Space Flight Center, have been furloughed. It is unlikely the problem will be fixed before the full slate of engineers and controllers return to duty. With no end in sight to the government shutdown, there is no telling when the Hubble Space Telescope will return to operation.

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