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NASA completes remote fix of Hubble's failed computer

Engineers switch telescope to redundant system as it orbits Earth at 17,500 mph

October 15, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A team of NASA engineers and scientists completed a remote switchover from a failed computer in the Hubble Space Telescope to an onboard backup system today.

In a normal enterprise, it's tough enough to power down a system, switch over to the redundant computer and then bring everything successfully back online. But, in this case, NASA did it from a room in the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. while the telescope hurtled along its orbit around Earth at 17,500 mph.

"We won't know if we've been completely successful until around midnight Wednesday when we demonstrate that the [redundant system] is talking to the instruments and able to pass data to the ground," said Keith Kalinowski, deputy project manager of Hubble operations, in a written statement.

The telescope, which has made more than 100,000 trips around Earth, was moved from the failed computer to the backup system at around 9:30 a.m. Eastern time. The backup computer then was loaded with data at around noon, and it successfully performed a data dump back to the ground to verify that all the loads were proper, according to an e-mail from NASA. At 1:10 p.m. Eastern time, the team brought Hubble out of safe mode and placed the computer back in control.

NASA reported that its team will reconfigure the new system later today and test it to make sure that it's functioning properly.

Late last month, the space agency announced that the computer failure was preventing data from being sent to Earth. Michael Moore, a program executive for the Hubble Space Telescope, has said that the computer problem is the worst the Hubble has suffered since it went into orbit more than 18 years ago.

This is the first Hubble computer malfunction that required the installation of a replacement system. "There's nothing young in the system," said Moore.

The problem lay in the Science Data Formatter, which is designed to take information from five onboard instruments, format it into data packets, put a header on it and then send it to Earth at speeds of up to 1Mbit/sec. Without this computer, Hubble can't take on long-planned research projects.

A planned October space shuttle mission to the telescope, which is the length of a large school bus and weighs 24,500 lbs., was postponed so scientists can ready another system to be brought up and installed as the next redundant system. As of last week, John Shannon, shuttle program manager at the Johnson Space Center, said the flight will likely be rescheduled for next February or April.

Ed Weiler, the associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, had noted in a previous interview that the switchover and subsequent installation of new redundant systems should add another five to 10 years to the Hubble's life.

The observatory, which was launched in 1990, is the first major optical telescope to be placed in space, according to NASA. Scientists program Hubble to capture images of the planets in our own solar system, as well as images of far-off stars and galaxies.

NASA also notes that about 4,000 astronomers around the world have used the observatory, which sends about 66GB of data to Earth each day.

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