Has Hubble Snapped its Last Picture?

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NASA officials say a short circuit caused the space telescope's main camera, responsible for capturing many of its breathtaking images, to shut down. Can engineers get the camera, known as the Advanced Camera for Surveys, running again?



NASA scientists say a short circuit has killed the main camera on the Hubble Space Telescope. The Advanced Camera for Surveys, the equipment that has given us those amazing images of deep space, that camera switched off last Thursday. A circuit breaker tripped after a malfunction in the electronics that control it. The camera is actually three cameras in one unit, and it was installed in 2002. It was one month shy of its fifth birthday when it stopped working.

Joining me now to tell us more about what might have happened and whether it can be fixed, is my guest Michael Weiss, deputy program manager for the Hubble Space Telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Thanks for talking with us, Mr. Weiss.

Michael Weiss, are you there? Well, can you hear me?

Mr. MICHAEL WEISS (Deputy Program Manager, Hubble Space Telescope, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center): Yes, I can hear you.

FLATOW: Hi, good. Thanks for being with us today.

Mr. WEISS: My pleasure.

FLATOW: Tell us exactly what do you know, what exactly what happened in the Hubble?

Mr. WEISS: Well, it started last Saturday when Hubble entered a safe mode. It's a protective condition when the space craft detects that something's wrong. So our first opportunity, we had Hubble send data to the ground, and what that data told us was that there was a serious short circuit in the avionics of the Advanced Camera for Surveys and a blown fuse. So we've got our engineers off looking at that data trying to understand the exact cause and the effects of it.

FLATOW: Is that camera the one that sends back all those beautiful deep space pictures?

Mr. WEISS: It's one of two cameras that sends back those spectacular images. It was the most sensitive camera that we had onboard Hubble, and it was responsible for some of the most recent deep surveys that we did and the high resolution images that we got back. But it is one of two cameras onboard Hubble that can send back spectacular, visible images.

FLATOW: Is there a backup system for the electronic circuitry that malfunctioned?

Mr. WEISS: That actually was the backup. Each one of our electronic circuitries has a, if you will, a twin brother on each instrument. The primary side had experienced failure in a power supply last summer, and we switched over to the backup side. So it was this backup side that has experienced the short circuit.

FLATOW: So it's actually not the camera itself that's broken but some - the instrument that controls it.

Mr. WEISS: That's the appearance. It appears that the electronics that control the camera's detectors, if you will - detectors similar to what you have in digital cameras - the detectors seem like they're OK. We still have to let the engineers pour over the data. But we also know that one of our detector channels on the other side is still OK, and our hopes are to go back to that channel as soon as our failure board tells us it's safe to do so.

FLATOW: So you want to diagnose the problem first before you...

Mr. WEISS: Right, exactly.

FLATOW: Yeah, and that - but if you shut that down the first time, why would you go back to it?

Mr. WEISS: We shut it down the first time because we wanted to have the full capability of the camera, which actually includes three separate cameras, if you will. They all have different capabilities. So in order to get that full capability, we switched over to the redundant side of electronics that control the camera.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WEISS: And with a blown fuse, it's now impossible to get to the electronics on that redundant side, but it is still possible to get to that one remaining channel on the primary side, and we hope to do that very, very soon.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, if it turns out that side one isn't fixable, is there a plan? Is it possible to go up there and repair the camera that's not working, or the system that's not working?

Mr. WEISS: We're looking at that but only after the failure board determines what the failure was. We have to understand that so we know what to study if we're going to even consider the feasibility of a repair.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WEISS: So that's the first step. We really have to understand what happened and then go from there.

FLATOW: This camera was put in the Hubble, what, five - almost five years ago.

Mr. WEISS: Right, it was put in in the last servicing mission that we did in 2002.

FLATOW: Is there a spare camera on the ground? You go up and just replace the whole thing.

Mr. WEISS: Well, you can't exactly replace what this camera did, but we do have two cameras sitting on the ground right now that are scheduled for installation in the next servicing mission, which NASA has now resurrected. And they're extremely powerful cameras, and they'll actually to some extent go beyond the capabilities of the Advanced Camera.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, and as you say there are other pieces on the Hubble that are still working.

Mr. WEISS: There are three remaining cameras, if you will, onboard Hubble: the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer - we call that NICMOS - it's an infrared camera; the Wide Field/Planetary Camera 2, which was actually the camera that fixed the original mirror arbitration problem, and it's that one that was installed on the very first servicing mission, and it's really the one that has returned all those really, really spectacular images that you see in newspapers and magazines.

FLATOW: And so how much better is this one that's malfunctioned than that one?

Mr. WEISS: The one that has malfunctioned is a denser CCD, if you will...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WEISS: ...it's a 15 mega pixel camera, and it's really optimized for different things than the other camera. Wide Field/Planetary Camera 2 is perfectly capable of returning really spectacular science. In fact there's - many scientists who were waiting to continue their campaigns after the Advanced Camera campaigns were finished, and they're now in the queue. And in fact Hubble has been returned to operational mode, and tomorrow is when we do what's called intercepting the science timeline, when we go back to taking full science.

FLATOW: Well, let's see if we can get a phone call or two in here. Let's go to Ryan in Wichita. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN (Caller): Hi, how are you?

FLATOW: Hi there.

RYAN: I had a question for the guest here. I was curious to know what he thinks the lifespan has left on the Hubble and, secondly, if there are any other space telescopes in progress to be launched in the near future if in fact the Hubble does come down at some point.

Mr. WEISS: Well, Hubble eventually will come down. It won't stay up forever. Its lifetime is hard to speculate. It's been functioning extremely well. It's still very, very healthy. In fact it's almost 100 percent healthy, so we expect it to last a very, very long time. And with the next serving missing, when we're going to put new batteries and new gyroscopes on, you know, our anticipation is at least five years and beyond that.

There is another telescope in production. It's called the James Webb Space Telescope. It's an infrared telescope, and it's meant to look at the infancy of stars and galaxies. In the analogy of the human life cycle, you know, Hubble is looking at adolescence, you know, to death of these stars and galaxies, and James Webb is going to take us as far back in time as we can get and look at the actual embryos and the birth of stars and galaxies in the infrared spectrum.

RYAN: That's amazing. Can I ask one more question before I get off the air here?


RYAN: The question is: do you believe, personally, that more federal funding should go towards science exploration and NASA versus what's being spent on it right now?

Mr. WEISS: Well, I'm - I'd prefer not to share my personal opinions.


Mr. WEISS: I'm a guest of this show representing NASA so, you know, as a NASA representative I'll tell you that we firmly believe in exploration.

RYAN: OK, that's fair enough. Thank you.

FLATOW: All right, Ryan. Thanks for calling.

RYAN: Bye-bye.

FLATOW: Bye. What - are you surprised the kind of reaction you get about the Hubble? I mean people are so concerned about it. It's sort of the jewel of the NASA space program I think.

Mr. WEISS: Well, we're not surprised by it at all. We've seen it for a long, long time. When you see a visible image, it's something that you can really relate to and to some extent take ownership of. You know, this vehicle and its capabilities are paid for by the taxpayers, and they're actually able to, you know, see the return on that investment. And you know, you'd be hard-pressed to open up a textbook anywhere and not see an image taken from Hubble so, you know, we're not surprised. We see that people take great ownership in what Hubble can do.

FLATOW: How soon will you know about the ability to repair - make those repairs you were talking about?

Mr. WEISS: Well, this is a really, really important thing to do. As you know, NASA has decided to resurrect the servicing mission. It's on the manifest to fly in about 20 months. This is really important work. We've asked the failure board to try to give us answers to these really, really tough questions in about 30 days. You know, we know that this has to be on the fast track, and after we understand what's going on then we can move forward with further feasibility.

FLATOW: And scientists now who wanted Hubble time to work on other projects are now able to work on those other projects.

Mr. WEISS: Yeah, they are. In fact when we experienced that failure back last summer, and knowing that we were now on our one remaining side of electronics, we actually put a contingency plan in place for the people that planned the observation time, where we said, you know, what would we do in the event that we lost either this instrument or another instrument? So we had those plans all queued up. And we actually implement those tomorrow, and we're going to be doing things like looking at quasars, and supernova, and planetary nebula.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, is the Hubble at an age where it now has to be continually maintained and up-kept?

Mr. WEISS: Well, we basically have done that every three years with the space shuttle. We've been up there four times. The state of the art on these cameras changes rapidly, you know, as you know from just looking at digital cameras. They change every few years. Well, it's the same thing with these state-of-the-art cameras. So we've been very fortunate to have been up there four times and put in really advanced electronics and cameras, and it's these advances that have allowed us to return extraordinary amounts of data and really spectacular images. So we're looking forward to that next mission when we can get two new cameras onboard and new batteries and new gyros and have this thing last for a long time.

FLATOW: Well, we wish you luck, Michael Weiss. Good luck to your repair efforts, and hopefully we can restore it back to full health.

Mr. WEISS: OK, thank you. Appreciate that.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Michael Weiss is deputy program manager for the Hubble Space Telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center out there in Greenbelt, Maryland.

We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we're going to switch gears and talk more about neuroscience and plasticity and how the brain can actually change its circuitry by thinking about it, something that we never thought could happen before. Sharon Begley's here with her new book to talk about the science she's collected in this area. So stay with us, we'll be right back after this short break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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