NEWS

Hubble telescope camera is broken — and US government shutdown could delay repairs

Ageing telescope’s wide-field camera fails while key NASA employees are on involuntary, indefinite leave due to political impasse.

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The hubble telescope in orbit

The Hubble telescope launched in 1990. Credit: NASA

Update, 15 January: NASA says that it has fixed the issues affecting Hubble's camera.

One of the Hubble Space Telescope’s main instruments stopped working on 8 January because of an unspecified hardware problem, NASA says. Engineers are unlikely to be able to fix the ageing telescope until the ongoing US government shutdown ends — whenever that might be.

Hubble’s mission operations are based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where most employees are on involuntary leave during the shutdown. A few people who operate spacecraft that are actively flying, including Hubble, have been allowed to keep working.

But fixing the telescope, which is almost 30 years old, will almost certainly require additional government employees who are forbidden to work during the shutdown. NASA has formed an investigative team, composed primarily of contractors and experts from its industry partners, to examine the technical troubles.

Federal law allows agencies to keep some personnel working during a shutdown if they are deemed necessary for protecting life and property. It is not clear whether NASA will request an emergency exception to allow repairs to Hubble before the shutdown — now on its nineteenth day — ends.

An e-mail to a NASA press officer seeking comment prompted this automatic reply: “I am in furlough status and unable to respond to your message at this time.”

Camera trouble

The instrument that broke is Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, one of its scientific workhorses. The telescope has one other camera and two spectrographs that remain operational and will keep collecting data, NASA said in an 8 January announcement.

In October, Hubble stopped working entirely for three weeks after the failure of one of the gyroscopes that it uses to orient itself in space. Engineers fixed the problem, but the rescue effort required input from experts from across NASA, including many who are currently furloughed.

The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, which runs Hubble’s science operations, remains open for now, using money it received from NASA before the shutdown started. But many of Hubble’s technical experts are based at Goddard, which is closed.

Hubble launched in 1990 and has been upgraded and updated five times by visiting astronauts, the last time in 2009. The Wide Field Camera 3 was installed during that final servicing mission. It has a back-up set of electronics that can be used if something has gone permanently wrong with the main set — but engineers won’t know if that is the case until they are allowed to work on the instrument.

The risk of not being able to fix Hubble if something broke is one of the impacts scientists were worried about as the government shutdown began on 22 December.

The shutdown, which affects roughly 75% of the government, is now in its third week with no end in sight. If it persists until 12 January, it will break the record for longest shutdown, which was set by a 21-day event that began on 16 December 1995.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00094-0
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