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Hubble Space Telescope is in trouble again, for the second time this year

The beloved Hubble Space Telescope has experienced an issue that caused it to switch to safe mode, meaning that its science instruments are healthy but are not currently collecting data. Engineers on the ground are investigating what caused the issue and how to address it.

“NASA is continuing work to resolve an issue that has suspended science operations on the Hubble Space Telescope,” the agency wrote in an update. “The science instruments entered a safe mode configuration on October 25 after detecting a loss of specific data synchronization messages.”

The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit around Earth.
The Hubble Space Telescope is currently in safe mode once again after an instrument issue. NASA

The Hubble team is currently trying to identify the specific cause of the problem, believed to be related to the Science Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit, and to figure out how to work around the issue.

To learn more, the team has turned on one of the telescope’s older science instruments, the Near Infrared Camera and Multi Object Spectrometer (NICMOS), which will allow them to collect data on the problem. This older camera has been superseded by the newer Wide Field Camera 3 and thus hasn’t been used since 2010, so the team can use it to gather more information on the problem without risking the currently active instruments.

The next step is to take another instrument out of safe mode, the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), and to see if it can collect science data safely. The team will also be analyzing more data to look for the underlying issue which caused the problem.

This is the second time this year that Hubble has run into trouble. The telescope was put into safe mode this summer after a hardware issue with parts of its computer, the Science Instrument Command and Data Handling (SI C&DH) unit and its power system, the Power Control Unit (PCU). This was fixed by switching to backup hardware, as Hubble carries backup versions of its key components which can be switched over to if an issue like this occurs.

Even with its redundancies in hardware and efforts from teams on the ground, however, Hubble is getting old. It recently celebrated its 31st anniversary, meaning that its technology is from the 1980s. It will inevitably stop working eventually, but hopefully, this latest glitch can be rectified and the grand old telescope can continue its work for more years yet to come.

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