NASA Delays Shuttle Mission to Hubble Telescope
The shuttle Atlantis (foreground) sits on Launch Pad A and Endeavour on Launch Pad B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. For the first time since July 2001, two shuttles are on the pads at the same time. Endeavour will stand by in the unlikely event that a rescue mission is necessary during Atlantis' upcoming mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, targeted to launch Oct. 10, 2008.
Credit: NASA/Troy Cryder.

NASA has delayed the last shuttle mission to the Hubble Space Telescope until early 2009 in order to repair a broken device that is blocking the orbital observatory from sending its iconic images of the cosmos back to Earth, agency officials said late Monday.

Seven astronauts were training to launch toward Hubble aboard the shuttle Atlantis on Oct. 14 on mission to extend the space telescope?s life through at least 2013, but the unexpected failure of a vital data relay system on Saturday will add months of delay to their spaceflight.

?I think it?s very obvious that Oct. 14 is off the table,? NASA?s space shuttle program manager John Shannon told reporters.

NASA announced Monday that a device known as the Side A Science Data Formatter failed, apparently for good, late Saturday, leaving the otherwise healthy Hubble with no means of relaying data and observations to scientists back on Earth. The electronics box failed after 18 years in service since Hubble launched in April 1990.

There is a backup for the unit, Side B, and flight controllers on Earth are working to make the complicated switch to revive Hubble?s science relay capabilities. But the move will leave the telescope without the redundancy to withstand another failure should one occur, making a repair for the Side A string vital, mission managers said.

?We do not really understand the precise location of the failure inside of the Science Data Formatter,? said Preston Burch, NASA?s Hubble program manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. ?And we won?t until we bring it down to the ground.?

Spare in hand

NASA does have a spare unit at Goddard, but will have to put it through a series of tests to ensure it is in good health.

Burch said that there is high confidence that the spare box, which is relatively brand new despite being 18 years old, is viable for the Hubble repair. But the tests required to prove its spaceworthiness will take months.

?I think we?d be hard-pressed to be ready any earlier than, say, January,? Burch said, adding that even mid-January could be a bit of a stretch. ?It?s looking more like a mid-February timeframe is the right time for us.?

Replacing the 136-pound (62-kg) data formatter box should be relatively straightforward for Atlantis?s crew, requiring about two hours during one of the mission?s five back-to-back spacewalks to perform, Burch said. One cable connector and 10 bolts need to be freed to remove the box from its mount, he added.

Commanded by veteran spaceflyer Scott Altman, Atlantis astronauts plan to install a new camera, replace gyroscopes and batteries, upgrade Hubble?s guidance equipment and add a docking ring during their 11-day mission. Tricky repairs to instruments never designed to be fixed in space are also on tap. The mission will mark NASA?s fifth and final shuttle flight to Hubble.

The astronauts were in the middle of an intense simulation on Monday when news of the delay broke, Shannon said.

NASA has not formally set a new launch target, though the agency has called off a planned flight readiness review that would have done so at the end of this week. In the off chance that the spare data formatter fails to pass muster, Atlantis could be primed to launch toward Hubble as early as late November.

Shannon said that by the end of next week, shuttle mission managers should have a better sense of what Atlantis? launch target will be.

A lucky failure

For every month NASA delays Atlantis? flight to Hubble, it adds an extra $10 million to the space telescope program?s cost. But, mission managers said, the cost could have been much higher.

?Think about if this failure had occurred two weeks after the servicing mission. We?d just put to brand new instruments in and thought we?d extended the life from five to 10 years and this thing failed after the last shuttle mission to Hubble,? said Ed Weiler, NASA?s associate administrator for science missions. ?We could have lost the mission in six, 12, 18 months.

?So in some sense, if this had to happen it couldn?t have happened at a better time,? he added.

Atlantis? planned October flight was slated to mark NASA?s fourth of up to five shuttle missions planned for this year. The mission was initially slated to launch in early October, but slipped several days due to a series of setbacks caused by Hurricane Ike and payload delivery issues.

The agency launched three shuttle flights earlier this year to continue construction of the International Space Station, with the Endeavour orbiter slated to continue that work with a planned Nov. 16 liftoff. Shannon said that if Atlantis? mission slips into 2009 for sure, NASA will prepare Endeavour for its own STS-126 mission to deliver new life support and other equipment that will allow the station to double its current three-astronaut crew size.

Meanwhile, NASA engineers at Goddard and their shuttle mission counterparts will work together to determine the best repair plan for Hubble. It was a similar effort, mission managers said, that allowed astronauts to fix Hubble?s blurry vision in space after a mirror defect nearly doomed the space telescope in the early 1990s.

?Hubble has a habit of coming back from adversity,? said Weiler, adding that the Hubble and space shuttle team ?works miracles.? ?I?m not too concerned about this, we?ll find a way to get this fixed. Luckily, we have a spare.?

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