Computer failure hobbles Hubble, derails shuttle mission

Computer failure hobbles Hubble, derails shuttle mission

A major computer failure onboard the Hubble Space Telescope is preventing data from being sent to Earth, forcing a scheduled shuttle mission to do repairs on the observatory to be delayed.

NASA scientists announced Monday that a data formatter and control unit "totally failed" on board the Hubble last Saturday. The Science Data Formatter is designed to take information from five onboard instruments, format it into packets, put a header on it and then send it to down to Earth at speeds of up to 1 megabit per second. Without this computer, the Hubble cannot take on long-planned research projects.

Michael Moore, a program executive for the Hubble Space Telescope, told Computerworld Tuesday that the problematic computer, which has been in orbit for 18.5 years, was designed by IBM in the 1970s and built by Fairchild Camera and Instrument in the '80s. He also called it a relatively simple machine that is vitally important to the observatory's communication abilities.

"There's nothing young in the system," said Moore.

Just a few days into the week, NASA is having both troubles and successes on its various space missions.

On Monday, NASA announced that with the aid of the robotic arm?onboard the Mars Lander, they have found evidence that it's snowing on Mars. While the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been circling the planet, the Lander has been sitting on the northern pole of the planet for several months, testing Martian soil samples for any materials -- including water and ice -- that could support life.

And last week, NASA announced that orbiter has sent back pictures of what look like old fractures in the planet's surface, and trails of Mars waterways.

Moore also said from his point of view, the computer problem is the worst the Hubble has suffered since it entered orbit in more than 18 years ago. It's the first computer malfunction that has required the installation of a replacement system.

NASA scientists are now working to switch the Hubble over to onboard redundant systems to resume services until the Space Shuttle arrives with a replacement system. NASA has postponed the space shuttle's?planned October repair mission to in order to get a replacement computer system ready.

As of now, John Shannon, shuttle program manager at the Johnson Space Center, said the flight will likely be rescheduled for February or April 2009.

In a teleconference on Monday night, Preston Burch, the Hubble manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said he's not yet sure what caused the computer failure.

"We do know that unit does run at a relatively high temperature compared to other components, and high temperatures tend to accelerate any kind of degradation process," said Burch. "So it may be thermally related, but once again, after 18-and-a-half years of in-orbit operation continuously, that is a pretty good performance. But, no, we do not know the precise location and the exact nature of this failure, and we probably won't know until we bring the unit down to the ground."

According to Moore, remotely switching over to the redundant systems should take about 10 hours and technicians and scientists expect to do it late next week. The switchover will involve shutting the telescope down and commanding it to come back up running on another set of boxes.

While this is a big problem for NASA, Burch said he doesn't believe it's big enough to force NASA to abandon the telescope.

"I don't see this failure as putting us over the fence and causing NASA to want to throw up its hands and say, 'Hey, all the hundred millions of dollars we have spent on the hardware and readiness for this mission, we are just going to chuck it because, you know, this is just a little too much for us'," he added. "We have got a lot of options here."

Ed Weiler, the associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, noted that the switchover and subsequent installation of new redundant systems should add another five to 10 years onto the Hubble's life.

"Hubble has a habit of coming back from adversity, and the Hubble team, which includes the Shuttle team, works miracles, and you know, I am not too concerned about this," said Weiler. "We will find a way to get this fixed."

The spare system that the shuttle will bring up to the Hubble was last used on the ground in 2001, according to Burch, who added that the system was stored carefully and the electronics are robust. Burch said he doesn't see any issue with the backup system being a solid replacement unit.

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