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NASA to attempt fix of Hubble telescope

It hopes to switch on a backup system that has sat dormant 18 years.

October 15, 2008|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

NASA engineers will begin trying today to bring the out-of-commission Hubble Space Telescope back online by switching to a backup system on a piece of equipment that relays data from the telescope to Earth.

The science data formatter, which collects information from the various instruments aboard the telescope and packages it for delivery, broke down late last month.

The failure forced the postponement of a repair mission to the 18-year-old Hubble, which was already suffering from a variety of technical problems that limited its ability to gather new data.

After studying the latest problem for two weeks, engineers announced at a news conference Tuesday at NASA headquarters in Washington that they would go ahead with the switch to the identical backup system.

Engineers are uncertain whether the backup formatter, which has sat dormant in space for almost two decades, will work. If it doesn't, the telescope will be out of commission at least until the rescheduled repair mission launches, which could be as early as February.

Hubble has taken some of the most striking pictures of the heavens. But right now, the only science it can do is astrometry, which relies on the telescope's fine guidance sensors to measure distances to stars.

"It is obviously a possibility" that the instruments will not come up, said Art Whipple, Hubble manager at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. "But we have very good confidence that this will work."

One thing in their favor, Whipple said, is that space is "a very benign storage environment." The aging of electronics by corrosion and dust on Earth does not occur in space.

Things do break, however, as evidenced by the crippling problems the telescope has suffered since the last repair mission in 2002.

Before the current problems, astronauts aboard the space shuttle were to install a spectrograph and wide-field camera on Hubble, as well as repair electronics on the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph and the Advanced Camera for Surveys. It also needs a new set of gyroscopes.

If all goes as expected, data should begin flowing as early as Thursday night.

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john.johnson@latimes.com

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