Hubble Space Telescope Suffers Serious Failure

This story was updated at 3:10 p.m. EDT.

A serious equipment failure aboard the Hubble Space Telescope is preventing it from relaying data and images to scientists on Earth and delayed plans to launch a shuttle mission to overhaul the observatory next month, NASA officials said Monday.

The glitch occurred Saturday in one of two sides of a device known as a Control Unit/Science Data Formatter that is responsible for sending data from Hubble to scientists on Earth, said Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesperson at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where the shuttle Atlantis was being primed for an Oct. 14 launch.

"The hardware failed, it's unrecoverable," Beutel told "They did testing and it's no longer fixable from the ground."

Side A of the data formatter failed late Saturday, with flight controllers in the Hubble's control center at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., working to switch to the backup Side B to regain data relay capabilities. The data formatter is vital to science operations for Hubble, which had been using the Side A unit since it launched in 1990.

"It's used to store and transmit all the science data from all the instruments," Beutel said.

The malfunction will delay NASA"s plans to launch Atlantis and a seven-astronaut crew to Hubble next month to perform an intense overhaul aimed at extending the observatory's mission life through at least 2013.

"Fixing the problem will result in delaying next month's Hubble servicing mission," NASA officials said in a statement. The mission has suffered a series of slight setbacks recently due to schedule slips from Hurricane Ike and payload delivery issues, and could be delayed to early February to allow more time to fix the new glitch.

Options weighed

While flight controllers work to switch to the backup formatter, NASA shuttle mission managers are weighing options for Atlantis and its STS-125 astronaut crew, which were gearing up to launch toward Hubble next month.

"I think it's safe to say that we're not going to launch on Oct. 14 because they're going to need at least a couple of days to see if they can bring up the backup portion of this system before we can commit to launching," NASA spokesperson Mike Curie told from the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Leaving Hubble reliant solely on its backup data formatter would also leave the observatory with no redundancy and one glitch away from a permanent failure, Curie said. A spare unit is available at the Goddard center, but it will require tests to ensure it is working properly after years in storage, he added.

Switching Hubble over to its backup data formatter is a tricky task, requiring the transition of five separate systems over their respective backups as well. The backup device has also not been powered on since the late 1980s or early 1990, before Hubble launched into orbit, NASA officials said, adding that if all goes well, the system could be powered up later this week.

Mission managers must decide whether the replacement task can be added to the already packed scheduled for Atlantis' STS-125 crew, or which chores can be pulled from the flight to make room.

"This morning, Hubble, shuttle and agency managers are meeting to discuss what options they might have, and there are a lot of options," Beutel said. "And they're also evaluating possible effects they might have on Atlantis' coming mission to the Hubble Space Telescope."

Hubble's last overhaul

Atlantis is slated to launch seven astronauts toward Hubble on Oct. 14 to pay one final service call on the space observatory. The mission is NASA's fifth and final planned service flight to Hubble.

Commanded by veteran spaceflyer Scott Altman, Atlantis' STS-125 astronauts are preparing to perform five back-to-back spacewalks to add a new camera, replace aging batteries and gyroscopes and upgrade Hubble's guidance equipment during their 11-day mission. The spaceflyers also plan to add a docking port and make unprecedented repairs to instruments never designed to be fixed in space.

Top NASA mission managers were expected to set a formal launch target on Oct. 3 after a traditional two-day flight readiness review, but that meeting has been postponed as they tackle the new Hubble malfunction.

While mission managers discuss how Hubble's recent glitch may affect flight plans for Atlantis and its STS-125 crew, the shuttle's launch preparations have been going well, Beutel said.

Atlantis is currently perched atop Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The new instruments and spare parts for Hubble were successfully delivered to the launch pad last week after a slight delay.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.