IRA FLATOW, host:
This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. First up this hour, how Hurricane Ike may have saved the Hubble Space Telescope. We'll get to that. It's an interesting confluence of events. The shuttle astronauts were set to rocket off towards the Hubble Telescope on a service mission later this month, and that delay, that was a result of a delay due to Hurricane Ike doing some damage at the Kennedy Space Center, at the Johnson Space Center, in Houston.
It was forced to close and there was a delay and that was put off until October 14th. But during that time it was discovered that a crucial part in this telescope's computer stopped working and that gave mission engineers time to fix it or to think of a repair and add that to the repair list. Of course, the Hubble's been flying out in space for about 18 years. So those computer components are getting pretty old by today's standards. Could this be the last straw for the aging telescope?
Joining me now to chat about the Hubble and how to fix it is my guest Ed Weiler, Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington. Welcome back to the program, Dr. Weiler.
Dr. ED WEILER (Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate, NASA): Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: So that was pretty fortuitous - that delay.
Dr. WEILER: Well actually, it was. Last Saturday night we discovered a science data formatting chip which is a small chip but very important one in the telescope failed. It basically takes all the data from all five instruments and packetitizes(ph) it and then routes it to the spacecraft computer. If that chip fails you don't get any data from the science instruments. So the telescope is effectively useless.
FLATOW: So, it's like your router that you have, you know.
Dr. WEILER: It's not a bad analogy. Not exactly.
Dr. WEILER: But not a bad one.
FLATOW: And so, you have a backup system for that, of course?
Dr. WEILER: Well, there are two ways we could back it up, and initially we said, oh, it's no problem, the science data formatter is in a bigger box called a science instrument command and data handling box which actually has two science data formatters. And they're powered by separate power sources so you kind of have a side A and a side B. So we could switch over to side B and be back in business. One of the problems though is that we haven't used side B on the space craft in 18 years.
Dr. WEILER: Never had to.
FLATOW: Just been sitting...
Dr. WEILER: Because nothing on side A has ever failed.
Dr. WEILER: So, that was one option. We could proceed with the mission next week, October 14th , a week and a half from now.
FLATOW: And switch that over to the side...
Dr. WEILER: To side B and you don't...
FLATOW: But then, you have no backup for side B.
Dr. WEILER: Exactly. And that was the key point. But we just happen to have - there were some smart people twenty, thirty years ago and said this SIC and DH unit is very important. We ought to build a backup system, a duplicate of it while we're building the first one because it's cheaper to do that. So there was a second SIC and DH built back in the late 1980s, and it's been sitting at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt for the last 18 years waiting to be called upon. And we periodically powered it up - the last time in 2001, and it works fine. So we have made a decision. If we can delay the mission two or three months, four months maybe and get this ready, we could then do the mission and have a fully redundant system again with backups. And we chose to go that course.
FLATOW: That's interesting. Did you know that it was sitting on a shelf out there and people will have to say hey, you know, we got one out there at Goddard.
Dr. WEILER: Well, I should have known it because I've been on this program thirty years. But you know, I probably had forgotten it. But luckily somebody remembered.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. WEILER: But it took us only a few hours to make the decision once - when we realized what all our options were. Things happened very fast.
Dr. WEILER: What I just described all happened within 24 hours.
FLATOW: Wow. So, you're going to, you'll swap out that unit.
Dr. WEILER: Yes, we'll add that to the list of things we'll work on and we're hoping to be able to fly in the shuttle. The shuttle has really been helpful with - for us scientists. It's found a way to meet our requirements for launch some time probably in the February time frame, just next year.
FLATOW: And so, sometime in February, no real hard fast date, yet.
Dr. WEILER: Well, it's probably mid-February time frame. They'll probably be setting a more hard date in a few weeks.
FLATOW: Mm hmm. What other kinds of things will you be repairing up there?
Dr. WEILER: Well, we're going to be putting in two brand new instruments, a new spectrograph and a new camera. And we're going to be replacing all six gyros. Unlike computer parts gyros have moving parts and they wear out. So we've replaced gyros many times over 18 years.
FLATOW: Mm hmm.
Dr. WEILER: We're replacing the batteries for the first time in eighteen years, and...
FLATOW: Wow. They kept going. Wow.
Dr. WEILER: odds and ends. And we're repairing two instruments that are dead. But we think we have a way to fix them and bring back to life two instruments worth a quarter of a billion dollars.
FLATOW: Wow. You mean, they just - do you have to take out their wrenches and repair them there or do you have replacements for those?
Dr. WEILER: No, they, what we do is - the astronauts, believe it or not, in space suits and thick gloves, have found ways they can actually open up the instruments, pull out failed computer cards and put new ones in and rewire some things. It's, you know it takes hours and hours. But it's worth a shot, you got nothing to lose. They're both dead. We think we can repair at least one, maybe both of them.
FLATOW: Mm hmm. What do we expect to learn from these new instruments that you're putting on there?
Dr. WEILER: Well, the new camera is going to - both instruments together will make Hubble more powerful than it's ever been. In fact, it's a lot like having a brand new telescope. It'll be more sensitive and have new ability to look into different wavelengths like the ultraviolet and the infrared. I hesitate, I always hesitate, having worked on this program so long. I'm telling the good science that is going to be done by the new instruments because every time I do that we launch it and then they make all these discoveries that we never anticipated which are far more important than anything we had planned.
FLATOW: So, you say, low expectations.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: You'd have great, great rewards that come back.
Dr. WEILER: That's a common thing these days, right?
FLATOW: Yeah. That's right, even in the space business. Because you know they declared the shuttle dead in 1990, the Hubble dead in 1990, didn't they?
Dr. WEILER: Right after we launched it, we discovered we had a really big problem that couldn't be fixed in orbit. Namely, the main 96 inch mirror was perfectly smooth and had a grade curve on it. The only one problem is the prescription on the curve was wrong.
Dr. WEILER: But luckily, over the course of two or three years, we discovered that we could make small, tiny adjustments in the internal optics of new instruments and actually just like when you put glasses on, if you're nearsighted, you turn an imperfect eye into a perfect eye.
FLATOW: So, how much of the original Hubble remains at this point?
Dr. WEILER: Actually, other than the mirror, not much.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. WEILER: Just - we replaced the gyros many times. We replaced all the instruments, some of the reaction wheels. We replaced the transmitter. We replaced fine guidance sensors. There's not much left of the original telescope other than the structure and the mirrors.
FLATOW: And how long do you think this might last now? Have we got another 18 years?
Dr. WEILER: No, I don't think. No, we don't have the shuttle to service it after about 2010. I think this last servicing mission should give us at least five good years and maybe six, seven or eight and eight on top of that.
FLATOW: Now, what if a private space company decided that it could send its own spacecraft up and we're talking, you know, to Elon Musk and those people who now have gotten into orbit for the first time with private companies. Could NASA hire those people to do mission? You know, service mission?
Dr. WEILER: Well, at that point becomes a cost issue. To keep all these spare parts, it's like, you know, you got the only brand of car in the world and you're suddenly responsible for maintaining all the infrastructure, all the spare parts for it. We knew this is going to be the last servicing mission. So we stopped making gyros and stopped making fine guidance sensors. And trying to rebuild that infrastructure would be enormously expensive. And it's probably cheaper to build a new telescope from scratch.
FLATOW: And they're working on that one, too.
Dr. WEILER: That's called James Webb Space Telescope.
FLATOW: And when would we expect that one?
Dr. WEILER: Two thousand and thirteen. It's actually only four and a half years away now and it's much larger than Hubble, 6.5 meters as opposed to 2.4 meters and far, far more sensitive because it works in the infrared.
FLATOW: You know, I always called the Hubble like the jewel of NASA because it makes pictures that more people see and gives more publicity for NASA than anything else, I think. And it's good to see that these great pictures will still be coming back and you say we might get other pictures because of a different wavelength?
Dr. WEILER: Oh, yeah. We have a new wide field planetary camera three which will give us even more sensitivity and new colors so to speak, new wavelengths. So the pictures will continue.
FLATOW: Oh, what would you be pointing them at? Extra solar planets or galaxies or everything?
Mr. WEILER: We will be looking at hopefully we'll be able to analyze the atmospheres of some of these new planets they're finding. And one of the big pushes will be to try to get ready for the James Webb Space Telescope by looking even deeper into the universe and finding some good candidates for the first galaxies that were born, the first stars that were born. And we'll be looking for exploding stars which give us some clues into the mysterious dark energy that was just discovered about 5 or 10 years ago.
FLATOW: And we'll be seeing the new images of the Hubble being uploaded to your website?
Mr. WEILER: Oh absolutely, that's the nice thing about Hubble. It is a peoples' telescope. Everything we take pictures of is on the website within months.
FLATOW: Hmm. How confident are you in this new formatter side B going to work? Pretty sure?
Mr. WEILER: I'm very confident because the instrument that was built. The copy of instrument on a ground, you know as I said, is the exact duplicate. And it will go through full and total functional testing on a ground before it goes up there. And it's a copy of an instrument that worked 18 years successfully in orbit.
FLATOW: Yeah, that's interesting. Did you ever imagine that the Hubble would be still be working today?
Mr. WEILER: No. I thought the Hubble would retire far quicker than I will and I'm wondering now if I'll make it as long as the Hubble's going to last. We were hoping for a 10 to 15 year mission and we're eighteen years going strong looking at another 5 to 10 probably.
FLATOW: Why do you think that is? Because of good quality control, what makes you think? It's just a really good design? I mean, there are certain things even like the Mars Rovers they're going way past their expected the life time.
Mr. WEILER: Well, it's not uncommon in space. If you launched something and it survived the first month or two, and we call that instant mortality, if something's going to be break in space it usually breaks the first time you turn it on or the first time it's exposed to vacuum. If it makes it through first couple of months things tend to last a long time up there because the environment's pretty stable and pretty benign. I mean, it doesn't rain much in space, you know.
FLATOW: And the computer up for the Hubble was built in the 1980s so it's ancient.
Mr. WEILER: Oh, yeah. Right now we upgraded the computer. We're now using a 486.
Mr. WEILER: But I'll tell you something, I'm an old fashioned guy, too. Sometimes I wish I have my MAC Plus so. The old computer, the old technology wasn't so bad and Hubble is good proof of it.
FLATOW: I've got a Plus and a IICi in my basement.
Mr. WEILER: There you go.
FLATOW: If you're still interested in one, I could send it right off to you. But those old things, they really were built quite solidly and so...
Mr. WEILER: Yeah I think, you got a lot more capability in new computers but I'm not sure they're more reliable.
FLATOW: All right, Ed. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today. And you're shooting for mid-February?
Mr. WEILER: Mid-February and we should start producing science probably 2 months or so after that.
FLATOW: All right, good luck. Ed Weiler is Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate and NASA Headquarters in Washington. We're going to take a short break. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, change gears and bring a whole different topic into focus. We're going to talk about the invention, and especially about "Flash of Genius." It's a movie that I got to see yesterday. It's a terrific film. I highly recommend it. We're going have Greg Kinnear here, Mark Abraham who is the producer and John Seabrook who's the staff writer of the New Yorker also wrote a book called "Flash of Genius and Other True Stories of Invention." 1-800-989-8255, stay with us we'll be right back.
(Soundbite of Talk of the Nation theme)
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.