The Hubble Space Telescope’s main camera has stopped working. Whenever any equipment in space malfunctions, it can be quite difficult to fix, and this is certainly true of Hubble. Some problems could set back scientific research dramatically because broken equipment can send incorrect results or simply interrupt study, but for now, we don’t know the severity of Hubble’s malfunction.
NASA issued a short statement on Jan. 9 explaining that the main camera onboard the Hubble Space Telescope stopped working on Jan. 8 at 12:23 p.m. Eastern. The space agency didn’t provide any other details except to say that Wide Field Camera 3 stopped working, so it’s unclear what kind of glitch it is and what caused it. Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, tweeted shortly after the malfunction was announced, but his post doesn’t reveal many details about the problem either.
This is when everyone gets a reminder about two crucial aspects of space exploration: 1) complex systems like @NASAHubble only work due to a dedicated team of amazing experts; 2) all space systems have finite life-times and such issues are bound to happen from time to time??? https://t.co/1Bd0NcmVVW
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— Thomas Zurbuchen (@Dr_ThomasZ) January 9, 2019
It cost $1.5 billion to build the telescope, but that doesn’t include the costs associated with the five in-space servicing missions conducted during the space shuttle era. In the last servicing mission, the Hubble Space Telescope received next-generation gyroscopes and its main camera, Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3.) The space shuttle program ended in 2011, and given that the telescope is floating far away from the International Space Station, it’s impossible to get to it to fix problems,. Hopefully this camera malfunction won’t require a servicing mission.
However, this doesn’t mean the Hubble Space Telescope has reached the end of its life. The telescope still has three other working cameras: the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS.)
CNN was able to get more details about the camera malfunction Tom Brown, Hubble mission head at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said the teams working on the Hubble Space Telescope are investigating and troubleshooting the issue. He added that a reboot of the system might fix the glitch.
“Eventually electronics break,” Brown told CNN. “That’s why redundant systems are installed… If a reboot doesn’t work, there are redundant systems we can switch instruments over to, but we are still figuring out what the right path forward is.”
Even though the U.S. government has been shut down for a while now, Brown said it is not an issue.
“The flight operations folks are considered essential and we’ve been in talks on repairs,” Brown said. “Primary experts are troubleshooting this right now.”
This is not the first glitch Hubble has encountered recently. In addition to its main camera breaking, the space telescope had problems with one of its gyroscopes in October. The telescope uses its gyroscopes to orient itself and point in the direction scientists wants to observe. Without the gyroscope, the telescope would still work, but it would be limited in directions it can cover. Fortunately, NASA’s engineers managed to repair the issue with the gyroscope.