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How a Backup System Is Now Driving the Hubble Space Telescope

Computer problems can affect systems on any level. Nowhere is this more evident than in a recent malfunction aboard NASA's Hubble telescope, which was left inoperable for weeks following a series of computer issues. Thankfully, they've recently switched to a backup system and were able to resume business as usual in July 2021.

Archaic Technology on a Grand Scale

It may come as a surprise to some, but the Hubble telescope had been relying on an archaic computer system from the 1980s for its day-to-day operation. After all, it's not exactly easy to upgrade a system that's flying through Earth's orbit. However, the team at NASA was able to switch Hubble's operations to a backup system and restore operation – for now.

The original issue, according to NASA's team, has been traced back to a malfunction power control unit, or PCU, on board the telescope. However, given the sensitive nature of much of the equipment on board, as well as the aging technology, the team is unsure how long their fix will last.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the science mission directorate at NASA, released a Tweet saying: ''"So far so good - just so proud of the @NASAHubble team as I received the updates all day. Assuming continued progress, Hubble will be in science mode later this weekend! Looking forward to that first 'after' picture."

Bill Nelson, NASA administrator, was recently quoted as saying:
"Hubble is an icon, giving us incredible insight into the cosmos over the past three decades. I’m proud of the Hubble team, from current members to Hubble alumni who stepped in to lend their support and expertise. Thanks to their dedication and thoughtful work, Hubble will continue to build on its 31-year legacy, broadening our horizons with its view of the universe."''

Fixing as Much as Possible

The telescope's PCU wasn't the only device under scrutiny during their latest efforts. Several other devices were successfully transitioned to their backup systems, too, including the Command Unit / Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF) and the Science Instrument and Command & Data Handling (SI C&DH) unit.

While this isn't the first time that hardware aboard the telescope has failed, it's a relatively rare occurrence that something does go wrong.

Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics with NASA, touched on this topic in a recent interview by saying: ''"Parts in space don't fail on schedule, it's a random thing. It's been 12 years since we serviced Hubble and one thing finally failed. So simplistically, we're going to go another five, 10, 12 years before something else fails, and it'll probably be something which is still redundant and so that won't be the end of the mission then, either."''

Although most modern smartphones contain more computational power than the systems behind the Hubble telescope, the team with NASA is obviously optimistic that their recent upgrade will help drive the Hubble for several more years. It's become a highly iconic piece of hardware for many, some of whom weren't even born when Hubble was original launched into orbit, and it's difficult to imagine life without the wondrous images produced by the Hubble telescope.


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