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Computer failure hobbles Hubble, derails shuttle mission

NASA will remotely switch to backup and fly new redundant system into space

September 30, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - 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 yesterday that a data formatter and control unit "totally failed" onboard 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 Earth at speeds of up to 1Mbit/sec. Without this computer, the Hubble can't take on long-planned research projects.

Michael Moore, a program executive for the Hubble Space Telescope told Computerworld today that the problematic computer, which has been in orbit for 18 and a half 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, it has 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 the Mars orbiter has sent back pictures of what look like old fractures in the planet's surface, and trails of Mars waterways.

Moore also said that from his point of view, the computer problem is the worst the Hubble has suffered since it went into orbit in more than 18 years ago. This is the first Hubble 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 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 of next year.

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."

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