NASA retirees save the Hubble Space Telescope | science | DW

It’s a Hollywood story. For 31 years, the Hubble telescope has been orbiting the Earth at an altitude of about 550 kilometers, providing us with impressive images of distant stars and galaxies. The mission was originally supposed to last only 15 years, but our galaxy’s distant telescope is still in orbit, and so far it has sent nearly 1.5 million images back to Earth.

However, on June 13, 2021, the Hubble payload computer, which controls and coordinates the scientific instruments on the telescope, suddenly failed. When the main computer stops receiving the signal from the payload computer, it automatically puts all of the Hubble science instruments to sleep. But all the team’s attempts to reboot the malfunctioning computer through the main computer failed.

Hubble also photographed the giant nebula NGC 2014 and its neighboring galaxy NGC 2020.

There is a spare computer but how does it work?

This is no cause for concern, as important Hubble components were installed in two versions after all, just in case. There is also a spare computer, which has never been used since the launch of the telescope in 1990. But a computer like this cannot be turned on by simply pressing the power switch.

How is it possible that NASA, the high-tech, no longer knows how these devices worked before? Imagine you found a chest with your childhood memories in the basement: a music tape with your old favorite songs and a floppy disk with pictures. When your grandson asks you about these weird instruments, you wonder who still has a cassette player and floppy disks for playing the recordings.

These are ordinary examples, but old technology and knowledge are easily lost, and any mistake in NASA’s rescue could have marked the irreparable end of Hubble’s mission.

Retirees support the new team

Sure enough, Nzinga Toll, the head of Hubble’s emergency team, has rounded up some former employees. The overhaul of the telescope built in the 1980s required the knowledge of employees throughout Hubble’s history, NASA writes in an open statement after the success of the mission.

USA Maryland |  NASA Goddard Flight Center |  Hubble Telescope

Computer startup was calculated step by step using a simulator.

More than 50 people participated in the rescue operation, which lasted for two weeks. New and old team members initially worked together on a list of potential weaknesses and tried to isolate the problem.

Analog knowledge in mind and on paper

Previous employees who had already been involved in building the telescope were still familiar with the old payload computer’s data and command processing unit. Other NASA retirees found the crucial evidence for the correct procedure in the original Hubble documents that ran from 30 to 40 years ago.

“This is one of the advantages of having a program that has been running for over 30 years: an incredible amount of experience and knowledge,” said Nzinga Toll. “It has been helpful and inspiring to work with both the current team and those who have moved on to other projects. They have all shown so much dedication to their colleagues at Hubble, to the observatory and to the science for which the telescope is known.”

photo collage |  Galaxies from the Hubble telescope

Hubble shows us two newly merged galaxies in Capricorn with three spiral arms

Galactic merger as a reward

Computer startup was calculated step by step in a simulator in the Control Center. Thanks to a combined effort, the backup computer was successfully commissioned on July 15, after a forced shutdown of five weeks.

Two days later, the machinesIt’s back to provide great images of distant galaxies. First, Hubble imaged two newly merged galaxies in Capricorn with three spiral arms. Thus, the space telescope is back in full operation thanks to the help of NASA retirees.

(ee/cp)

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