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More Trouble for the Hubble Telescope as a Primary Camera Malfunctions

Category: Science,Science & Tech

The Hubble Space Telescope has a new problem. NASA reported on Wednesday that one of its most frequently used cameras, known as the Wide Field Camera 3, had turned itself off the previous day.

The trouble has been traced to one of the telescope’s channels that handles observations in the ultraviolet and visible-light parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, according to Tom Brown, head of the Hubble mission at the Space Telescope Science Institute. Another channel, which handles infrared observations, is fine, he said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the engineers had not yet isolated the fault. Although initial suspicions had focused on electronics, Dr. Brown said, there was a good chance that it was a case of corrupted data, and could be solved by rebooting the instrument in a few days, once it has been deemed safe to do so.

“Hopefully it’s not a hardware problem,” he said — but if it is, the camera has redundant electronics that can be brought into play. In the meantime, the telescope is continuing to perform science with its other instruments.

“We’re not in a super hurry,” Dr. Brown said. He noted that many of the operations waiting in the queue to be performed do not use the wide-field camera, and can be moved up in the schedule.

The Hubble Space Telescope, the jewel in NASA’s science crown, was launched into space in April of 1990, and has been visited five times over the years by astronauts to make repairs and do maintenance. The last servicing mission occurred in 2009, when the Wide Field Camera 3 was first installed.

The camera shutdown, along with the death last year of one of the gyroscopes that keep the telescope properly aimed, has prompted warnings from the astronomy community that the Hubble is approaching the end. Dr. Brown doesn’t buy it. “I would say the telescope is aging gracefully,” he said. He pointed out that it has been living in the harsh environment of outer space for 30 years already, and astronomers expect it to be doing science at least through 2025.


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