Hubble in Trouble, But It Could Have Been Double


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Hubble in Trouble, But It Could Have Been Double

Wired said:
The Hubble Space Telescope has experienced an epic fail on orbit that has shut the instrument down, but the timing of the problems couldn't have been better.

A long-planned final service mission to the Hubble was scheduled for October 14. With the phase-out of the Shuttle program, no repairs would have been possible from a later flight. So, when a central scientific data controller broke on Saturday, Hubble's operators weren't distraught, they were relieved.

"Think if it had happened two weeks after the service mission... We could have lost the mission in six, twelve, eighteen months," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA. "If this had to happen, it couldn't have happened at a better time. We're very lucky."

Now the service mission has been delayed until February to allow for a replacement system — long in storage on the ground — to be included in the mission.

The Hubble mission has experienced its share of ups and downs. In 1990, weeks after it launched, astronomers discovered a major error in the scope's optics and pronounced it stillborn. A heroic engineering effort fixed the problem and led to a string of discoveries via some of the most beautiful highest-resolution images of space ever seen. Hubble, initially deemed a failure, has turned into one of the most successful NASA missions in the post-Apollo age.

The new problem does not appear nearly as severe as the optical problem. The malfunctioning unit — the Control Unit/Science Data Formatter — was built with a redundant system on board. NASA engineers will attempt to switch to the built-in backup this week, and will use it until the full replacement unit can make the trip in February.

NASA's Hubble managers don't anticipate any problems with the built-in backup unit, and believe that scientific operations will resume soon.

"It was checked out extensively on the ground," said Preston Burch, Hubble manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "We are pretty confident it should work."

After that, however, the Hubble will have no redundancy in that controller, and that's why NASA wants to fly the entirely new control unit into space on the now-delayed service mission.

Despite the optimism at NASA, there could still be major problems for the Hubble. For example, neither backup unit has been used or tested for almost 20 years. It remains to be seen whether the old systems can shake off the dust they've accumulated and perform to specifications.

If the on-orbit backup doesn't function properly, scientific observations could be delayed until the February mission. If the replacement system stored on the ground doesn't properly check out, the Hubble and all its expensive gadgetry will be running through a computing system with no backup.

And then there is the nightmare scenario: neither backup system works properly. If that happens, NASA engineers would be staring down an ignoble end to an otherwise brilliant mission. Asked about that scenario in a media teleconference, Weiler dismissed the possibility and countered that the Hubble mission had "been here before," dealing with unanticipated hardware failures.

"This whole program was declared dead in 1990," Weiler said. "Not only did we survive it, we came back as the great American comeback story."

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(Via Wired)
Hubble Failure Impacts People, Schedules

Hubble Failure Impacts People, Schedules

Wired said:

After years of preparation and thousands of last minute details, the Oct. 14 Hubble repair mission launch date was scrapped after news that Hubble's data handling unit had failed. Now all the teams involved have to readjust their expectations and grapple with a new launch schedule and its impact on future missions.

Mission managers have pushed back the final Hubble repair mission possibly until February 2009. Before then, they need to check out a ground spare for Hubble's failed computer, get it manifested on the flight, develop procedures and train the crew to do an entirely new set of repair operations.

Meanwhile an array of engineers, technicians, ground crew and even the astronauts themselves are having to switch gears from doing everything they can to be ready for the October launch and prepare for the historic mission to trying to handle a dizzying new set of challenges.

The mission is notable for a number of reasons. First, it is critical to Hubble's team and fans who have been lobbying and preparing for this day for a long time.

Also, it is also the first time a second rescue Shuttle and crew will be ready to fly from the neighboring launch pad. This mission is the first since the Columbia accident that would not be able to reach the International Space Station to await rescue if there is a problem. Because both launch pads are needed for the Hubble mission and its potential rescue Shuttle, postponing it will also delay the Ares 1-X dummy rocket test that was scheduled for April 2009. The Ares rocket program will begin modifying one of the pads as soon as the Hubble mission has landed.

The seven-person crew also has four rookies, Gregory Johnson, Megan McArthur, Andrew Feustel and Michael Good. Johnson was selected to be an astronaut in 1998, McArthur, Feustel and Good were all selected in 2000. Now imagine how excited you would be to finally fly on your first mission — a high-profile, save-the-day mission — and two weeks before you are set to strap in, you are told, "Uh, there has been a slight change..."

According to Shuttle Program Manager John Shannon, the astronauts are handling it very professionally. "The crew right now is in an integrated sim[ulation]. This is just one of those things that comes with space flight. I think the crew is very stoic. They'll be ready to go fly," he said at a press conference Monday.

But still, there has to be a part of them that is just a little disappointed. Well, even if they aren't, I am disappointed for them. I worked with Megan McArthur on a joint oceanographic/space/IMAX expedition in 2003 and was very excited to see her launch this month. But if there is one thing aerospace teaches you, it's to be patient.

It was also a night launch, which means people from near and far were planning to travel to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to see an extra-spectacular show. "Luckily we bought our tickets on Southwest," I heard aerospace students from the University of Texas at Austin and SUNY Buffalo say, planning to rebook their flights as soon as a new launch date is set.

Meanwhile teams who were ramping up for a very busy time preparing for the potential for two Shuttles, a Soyuz (Oct. 12 launch) and various other expendable launches all being on orbit at the same time, suddenly find themselves stopped. They were braced for 24/7 operations and now are not sure what will happen next or when.

The good news is that the failed unit may not be hard to replace, assuming the replacement on the ground is still good. The failed part is just inside one of the access doors on Hubble and has a number of bolts and one connector. Early estimates are that the spacewalk to complete this task might be done in as little as two hours. If only that was how long it took to pack the new unit into the Shuttle and blastoff...

First Ares Launch Likely Delayed by Pad Conflict [Spaceflight Now]

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Photo: NASA


(Via Wired)