Hubble Space Telescope sidelined by issue with its 1980s computer

June 13, 2021, the Hubble Space Telescope shut down after an issue with a 1980s-era payload computer. Team members continue to work on the issue to get the telescope operational once again.  (Image credit: NASA)

Update: Monday (June 21), NASA shared a statement with about Hubble's current status: "The Hubble operations team is working to solve the payload computer issue onboard the Hubble Space Telescope. The team is working to collect all the data available to them to isolate the problem and determine the best path forward for bringing the computer back to operations. At this time, there is no definitive timeline for bringing the computer back online. However, the team has multiple options available to them and are working to find the best solution to return the telescope to science operations as soon as possible. Launched in 1990, Hubble has contributed greatly to our understanding of the universe over the past 30 years."

NASA is working quickly to fix the Hubble Space Telescope after an issue with a 1980s-era computer on board caused the famous orbiting observatory to temporarily shut down.

The Hubble Space Telescope, which in 2020 marked its 30th year in orbit, halted operations on Sunday (June 13) just after 4 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT) after problems arose with one of the telescope's computers from the 1980s. The Hubble operations team suspects that the trouble could be due to a degrading memory module, according to a NASA statement. The team is hard at work trying to correct the issue, switching to one of the telescope's several backup modules.

"Assuming that this problem is corrected via one of the many options available to the operations team, Hubble is expected to continue yielding amazing discoveries into the late 2020s or beyond," the operations team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland told in an email. However, "there is no definitive timeline yet as to when this will be completed, tested and brought back to operational status," they added. 

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On Sunday, the telescope's main computer stopped receiving signals from the payload computer and sent an error message to the ground system back on Earth, which alerted the operations team that something was wrong, the team said. 

"Analysis indicates the error is likely due to a degraded memory problem. Memory can degrade over time due to years of exposure to radiation in space. Issues like this are expected, which is why there are backup memory modules on the spacecraft," they added. 

The computer that stopped working on Sunday is a payload computer that controls the observatory's science instruments as part of the telescope's Science Instrument Control and Data Handling module. The module was last replaced during the last astronaut servicing mission to the observatory in 2009. The payload computer is a NASA Standard Spacecraft Computer-1 (NSSC-1) system that was built in the 1980s. 

"The payload computer is from the 1980s, which is when Hubble was designed and built. Like all spacecraft hardware, the harsh environment of space can take its toll on electronics. That is why there are backup memory modules and a backup payload computer onboard the spacecraft that we can switch to if needed," the operations team members wrote in the email.. 

After the telescope shut down on Sunday, Hubble's main computer then automatically put all of its instruments into safe mode and, on Monday (June 14), team members at NASA Goddard restarted the payload computer that caused the shutdown. However, after the restart, the computer ran into the same problems that caused the initial shutdown.

The operations team is "currently in the process of switching memory modules onboard the spacecraft," the team said. Once this process is complete and the craft has been thoroughly tested, it will resume normal operations. 

This is not the first time that Hubble has run into problems that needed fixing. Early in the telescope's lifetime, scientists found an error with the observatory's pointing-control system and issues with the shape of its primary mirror. 

The first servicing mission was launched to work on the telescope in 1993, and missions to Hubble continued to launch throughout NASA's space shuttle program. On these missions, astronauts worked on many issues, including replacing batteries and the gyroscopes that allowed Hubble to point steadily at far-away spots in the cosmos. 

Hubble has overcome problems more recently as well. This past March, for example, the telescope went into a protective "safe mode" after suffering an apparent software glitch but bounced back a few days later.

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.