NASA's long-planned mission to rescue the aging Hubble Space Telescope will be delayed by months due to the failure of a critical device onboard the observatory, NASA science chief Edward Weiler told reporters yesterday. That failure will put a brief crimp on Hubble data and force eager scientists to wait longer for a new batch of instruments to be installed on the telescope.
The trouble began on the evening of 27 September, when a component that prepares data to ship back to Earth unexpectedly ceased operating. A backup system can resume normal data operations, and NASA engineers hope to turn it on within the next 2 weeks. But they are loath to send an expensive and time-consuming shuttle mission to the telescope without also replacing the unit.
So NASA will first prepare a spare data unit, now in storage, for the mission. And that will require subjecting the stored device to a battery of tests, acquainting the astronauts with how to replace the unit, and then finding a launch window for the delayed mission. In all, Hubble may have to wait until February 2009 at the earliest, and possibly as long as April, to be serviced, says Weiler.
The mission itself may involve another compromise. Although replacing the device likely will take only 2 hours, the astronauts already have a full schedule. John Shannon, shuttle program manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, says the agency may have to forgo another fix to find time, though he didn't name any options. But Preston Burch, Hubble program manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is optimistic that the crew will be able to conduct some repairs more quickly than anticipated, freeing up time for the new job.
Weiler says the problem may be a blessing in disguise. "Think if this had failed 2 weeks after we sent the mission," he told reporters. And he has been through worse while Hubble chief scientist in the 1990s, when the telescope's faulty vision threatened to kill the entire program. "Hubble has a habit of coming back," he says. "I'm not too concerned."