Hubble Trouble: Space Telescope's Wild Ride

Hubble is having as wild a ride as Wall Street this year. The space telescope was on the verge of its long-anticipated visit from the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis when a vital instrument suddenly shut down.

Saturday night, Sept. 27, at 8:11 p.m., while members of Congress wrestled with the bailout bill, a small group of scientists at the Goddard Space Center was dealing with their own crisis. The telemetry from Hubble streaming down to their computer screens suddenly went red. Hubble's command system for sending down data to the ground had failed abruptly. Hubble went into safe mode.

What does this mean? That much of what Hubble discovers while it is orbiting the planet -- those beautiful and stunning images of deep space -- simply can't be down-linked to researchers on Earth.

The breakdown on Hubble came just weeks before the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis was scheduled for the final servicing mission to repair and upgrade the space telescope.

The timing could have been worse, according to Ed Weiler, NASA's science officer.

"Think about if this failure had occurred two weeks after the servicing mission, when we had just put two brand-new instruments in and thought we had extended the lifetime for five, 10 years, and then had this thing fail after the last shuttle mission to Hubble. So if this had to happen it couldn't have happened at a better time."

The clock is ticking for Hubble -- if a shuttle can't get to it soon to replace its failed gyroscopes and dying batteries, the telescope is in jeopardy.

The mission to go back to Hubble and fix the telescope has been an on-again off-again and on-again scenario. The mission was halted after the accident that doomed the crew of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.

The repair mission would be too risky, according to then NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe.

"Could we do this and take the risk? Sure, but somebody else would have to make that decision, not me, because I'm not doing it,'' O'Keefe said at the time.

It was up to the next head of NASA to reinstate the mission to repair Hubble. Mike Griffin launched a 18-month study to determine if a space shuttle could safely get to Hubble, and in October 2006 the mission was reinstated.

Hubble would be saved. The mission under current NASA guidelines will certainly be risky. Five intensive back-to-back spacewalks with two spacewalking teams will refurbish Hubble to extend the wildly successful telescope's lifespan through 2013.

One of those spacewalkers, astronaut John Grunsfeld, is now working with a team to figure out if Hubble's failed communications system can be repaired during one of his three spacewalks.

What's at stake? Astronomer Sandra Faber said we need Hubble to expand our knowledge of the universe. "Hubble has made a number of groundbreaking discoveries that changed our view of the Universe. Hubble was the first telescope to look back in time and show us infant galaxies in the process of being born. That's a first -- to use a telescope as a time machine looking back billions of years -- that is a terrific legacy."

Scientists and engineers are working on backup hardware to go to Hubble to replace the broken the broken system. If all goes well, Atlantis will launch sometime in early 2009 to fix the space telescope.

The challenge for NASA will be scheduling 10 or 11 space shuttle flights before the fleet of three orbiters is grounded in 2010.