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 SPACE.com. "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.
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 SPACE.com 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.