Complex Made Simple

The famous Hubble telescope in real trouble. Here’s why this matters

NASA recently announced that both of the legacy telescope's computers are suffering from the same glitch, as does Hubble's backup computer

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is due to finally launch later this year Hubble captures light from galaxies that formed just 500 million years post the Big Bang Calculating the Hubble Constant helped astronomers determine how old the universe is

On April 24, 1990, the Space Shuttle Discovery was launched. Nestled in its cargo bay was the powerful Hubble Space Telescope.

Hubble has peered to great distances, seeing the most distant galaxy ever observed, one that formed 400 million years after the Big Bang.

At closer distances, it has photographed hundreds of thousands of ancient galaxies that formed billions of years before the Earth even existed.

But Hubble is in dire, dire straits.

Hubble malfunctions 

 The space agency, NASA, recently announced that both of the legacy telescope’s computers are suffering from the same glitch, as does Hubble’s backup computer.

There’s no apparent “quick fix” for the potentially catastrophic issues Hubble has suffered.

The ordeal began on June 13, when a problem with Hubble’s payload computer caused the scientific instruments aboard the space telescope to switch into safe mode. 

NASA then executed tests on June 23 and 24, aiming to restart scientific activities on the space telescope. And, alas, even the backup computer didn’t solve the problem, since it had the same error with onboard memory. 

Nevertheless, one should never discount the ingenuity of the people who design and operate spacecraft. For example, in March 2020, a glitch in the Voyager 2 deep space probe caused it to shut down, but after a little over a week, NASA engineers fixed the glitch. Voyager 2 is currently so distant (11.5 billion miles, or 18.5 billion kilometers) that it takes 34 hours for a command to reach the craft and a response to return to Earth. By way of contrast, the Hubble Space Telescope orbits only about 300 miles above the Earth. That greatly simplifies the engineers’ efforts.

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A new telescope ready for launch

The much-awaited NASA’s next-gen space-based observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is due to finally launch later this year. 

In many ways, it is a superior instrument to Hubble. Because of a hundred-fold increase in power and the new telescope’s ability to better see infrared light, it will be able to peer farther back into the past. 

Hubble has imaged objects that existed 400 million years after the Big Bang, but JWST will be able to see objects 200 million years after the universe was created. That is the era in which the first stars began to burn.

JWST has had a checkered past. It was originally scheduled to be launched sometime between 2007 and 2011. But construction interruptions and changes in the design resulted in a series of delays.  

NASA currently states that the JWST launch date will be sometime after October 31 of this year.

JWST will have other exciting capabilities, like the ability to directly detect atmospheres around alien worlds and to image the birth of both stars and planetary systems.

Unlike Hubble, JWST which has a $10 billion price tag will not orbit the Earth. Instead, it will be orbiting a location called the Lagrange point #2 (L2), a million miles farther (1.5 million km) from Earth.  

Hubble’s photo memories and galleries

(Below photo credits go to https://www.businessinsider.com/)

Hubble has a portfolio of awe-inspiring images of the most dramatic landscapes and discoveries in our universe. 

The space observatory has created portraits of Jupiter, imaged an enormous vortex raging on Neptune, and illustrated the seasons of Saturn.

One of Hubble’s most iconic images, from its Deep Field project, offers one of our widest, deepest portraits of the visible universe.

Hubble can peer so far across the universe that it captures light from galaxies that formed just 500 million years after the Big Bang.  

In 1993, astronauts launched into space to repair the telescope. 

All in all, astronauts have launched to the telescope five times for maintenance, upgrades, and repairs.

One star-birthing formation became particularly famous after Hubble photographed it in 1995. These tendrils of gas and dust are called the Pillars of Creation. 

The pillars are part of the Eagle Nebula, which is about 6,500 light-years away. 

In 1998, astronomers using Hubble discovered that the universe has continued to expand faster and faster since the Big Bang.

Previously, scientists assumed that the universe expanded rapidly after the Big Bang but slowed down as time wore on.  

Astronomers then used Hubble’s observations to calculate how fast the universe is expanding — a measurement known as the Hubble Constant. 

Spiral galaxy NGC 4603, imaged by Hubble, helped astronomers calculate the rate of the universe’s expansion in 1999.

Calculating the Hubble Constant helped astronomers determine how old the universe is. Scientists think it’s about 13.8 billion years old.  

Hubble has detected organic molecules and carbon dioxide on planets orbiting other stars. It also captured an exoplanet in visible light for the first time in the mid-2000s.

In 2019, Hubble found evidence of water vapor on an exoplanet and some scientists think that planet could be habitable.

Hubble has also given scientists some of their best data on dark matter.