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Glitch Delays Hubble Repair Mission

The crew of the space shuttle Atlantis -- with commander Scott Altman, right, and pilot Gregory Johnson in the lead -- during a practice run at Cape Canaveral, for the Hubble mission. NASA was forced to delay the mission yesterday.
The crew of the space shuttle Atlantis -- with commander Scott Altman, right, and pilot Gregory Johnson in the lead -- during a practice run at Cape Canaveral, for the Hubble mission. NASA was forced to delay the mission yesterday. (By John Raoux -- Associated Press)
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By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A malfunction on the Hubble Space Telescope over the weekend forced NASA yesterday to delay, probably until next year, a space shuttle mission to repair and upgrade the orbiting observatory, agency officials said.

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Preston Burch, Hubble program manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, said that the failure of the 18-year-old science data formatting instrument was "a major event for Hubble" and that efforts to bring it back online from Earth did not work.

Another identical instrument is on the Hubble, but Burch said that switching over to it permanently would endanger the observatory's long-term success and that it made more sense to delay the repair mission so the space shuttle can bring up a replacement instrument now at Goddard.

Burch said that the 120-pound replacement unit would not be ready to be shipped to Kennedy Space Center until early January and that a mid-February launch might be possible.

Edward Weiler, head of NASA's science program, acknowledged that Hubble has had a "lot of ups and downs" since being launched into orbit in 1990 -- beginning with a major manufacturing defect in the telescope's main mirror that was discovered after it was launched -- but said that in many ways "we're glad it happened right now."

"What would we have done if this happened two weeks after the Hubble service mission was completed," he said. "This way we have the possibility of delaying a few months and then bringing up an instrument that will allow Hubble to continue in top form for five to 10 years."

The telescope is not thought to be in danger, although Burch said that any effort to switch to the backup instrument onboard could blow a fuse or cause some unforeseen problem. He said the spare instrument on the ground will be tested rigorously for reliability and for any hints of what might go wrong if the agency turned on the second formatting instrument now in orbit.

The Hubble telescope, which has revolutionized astronomers' understanding of stars, galaxies and the universe, is in orbit about 380 miles above Earth and has been repaired and upgraded four times. The currently scheduled Hubble mission will be the last, NASA officials have said.

The space shuttle Atlantis had been poised to launch Oct. 14 on a complex repair and updating mission that would require five spacewalks to install new components on the Hubble. NASA officials said that astronauts would take two hours to install the spare data-formatting instrument and that the mission delay would cost about $10 million a month.

With the space shuttle fleet due to be retired in fall 2010, the schedule for missions is tight. The delay of the Hubble mission means other flights to the international space station will probably go earlier.

Although the new problem is serious, NASA officials said it was no reason to scrub the mission and abandon what has, by most accounts, been the most successful astronomy instrument in history.

"Hubble has a habit of coming back from adversity," Weiler said. "I'm not too concerned about this."


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