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NASA's aging Hubble Space Telescope stuck in safe mode as glitch fixes falter

New tests suggest the problem might not be what NASA originally thought it was.

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The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope during deployment in 1990.

NASA/Smithsonian Institution/Lockheed

The Hubble Space Telescope has spent over three decades bringing us glorious images and data, but the spacecraft is showing its age. The Hubble team is troubleshooting a problem with the telescope's payload computer -- a piece of hardware built in the 1980s -- that controls its science instruments. But there might be something else going on. 

The computer issue cropped up on June 13. "After analyzing the data, the Hubble operations team is investigating whether a degrading memory module led to the computer halt," NASA said in a statement last week. Hubble is a joint project from NASA and the European Space Agency.

NASA announced on Tuesday that the memory issue might actually be a symptom of problem with a different piece of computer hardware. "The operations team is investigating whether the Standard Interface (STINT) hardware, which bridges communications between the computer's Central Processing Module (CPM) and other components, or the CPM itself is responsible for the issue," the agency said.

In a June 18 update, NASA said the telescope is healthy, but the science instruments remain in safe mode. The Hubble team already tried restarting the payload computer, but encountered the same glitch again. The team tried switching over to a backup module, but the command failed to complete. Another attempt wasn't successful. 

"The team is currently designing tests that will be run in the next few days to attempt to further isolate the problem and identify a potential solution," NASA said on Tuesday. 

The Hubble team will look at switching the telescope to a backup payload computer if the problems can't be fixed. The backup hasn't been powered on since it was installed during a space shuttle servicing mission in 2009.

The telescope has weathered a series of technical glitches in recent years. A software error sent it into safe mode for several days in March.

Hubble has been remarkably resilient as scientists wait for the much-delayed next-generation James Webb Space Telescope to launch, hopefully later this year. James Webb will continue to expand on Hubble's legacy. 

If past efforts are any indication, Hubble could possibly persevere past this latest problem and resume its valuable science operations, but NASA is also facing the reality of working with old systems that have long outlasted expectations.

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