NASA sets shuttle mission to take new Hubble computer aloft

Computer failure plagued telescope for weeks; new system will act as backup

NASA has scheduled a May 12 shuttle mission to take a computer to the Hubble telescope after a failed system left the device offline for several weeks this fall.

The space agency said Thursday that the Space Shuttle Atlantis and its crew of astronauts had been scheduled to launch a servicing mission to Hubble in September. But that flight was postponed because of the failed data handling unit, which is responsible for sending data back to Earth.

After more than a month of remotely working on the telescope, which is the length of a large school bus and weighs 24,500 lb., NASA engineers were able to get it working again at the end of October. They got the system up and running by doing a remote switchover from the failed system to an onboard redundant system. They initially ran into trouble with the switchover when two glitches in the system derailed their efforts.

Art Whipple, chief of NASA's Hubble systems management office at the Goddard Space Flight Center, said in October that problems with the backup system likely stemmed from the fact that that it sat idle for 18 years while hurtling around Earth at 17,500 mph on board the telescope. A few weeks later, the orbiter, running on the backup system, was back at work, sending images of a pair of gravitationally interacting galaxies. The pictures prove that the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2, a key scientific instrument, is working just as it did before the orbiter went offline.

This is the first Hubble computer malfunction requiring the installation of a replacement system since it first went into orbit 18 years ago.

Now that Hubble is running on its sole spare system, NASA needs to send up another new backup system. That system was built at the same time as the two that have been on board the orbiter for the past 18 years, so engineers have been dusting it off to make sure it's ready to run.

According to a NASA alert, the Atlantis mission will be an 11-day flight with five scheduled spacewalks. Engineers have said they expect the new system and other updates to extend the orbiting telescope's life by another 10 years.

The Hubble telescope is the first major optical telescope to be placed in space. 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 notes that about 4,000 astronomers around the world have used the observatory, which sends back about 66GB of data to Earth each day.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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