Hubble in Trouble

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The Hubble Telescope looking towards Redshift 12 galaxies.
Credit: NASA

One of four science instruments aboard NASA’s Hubble’s Space Telescope suspended operations earlier this week, and engineers are now looking into possible recovery options.

The instrument, called the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), was installed during the second Hubble servicing mission in 1997 and was designed to operate for five years. It has either met or exceeded all its scientific requirements.

Hubble’s other instruments, the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS), the Advanced Camera for Surveys, and the Wide Field/Planetary Camera 2 are all operating normally.

The STIS instrument, which went into a suspended mode Tuesday, was not slated for replacement or upgrade as part of any future servicing mission.

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The Hubble Telescope.
Credit: NASA

NASA has convened an Anomaly Review Board to investigate the cause of the STIS problem and an investigation is underway to determine if the instrument is recoverable.

Preliminary findings indicate a problem with the +5V DC-DC power converter on Side 2, which supplies power to the mechanism’s electronics. STIS suffered a similar electrical malfunction in 2001 that rendered Side 1 inoperable.

A final decision on how to proceed is expected in the coming weeks as analysis of the problem progresses.

In the current observing cycle, STIS accounts for about 30 percent of all Hubble scientific observation programs. A "standby" list of peer reviewed and approved observing programs for the other science instruments on Hubble can be used to fill the observing time now available.

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Hubble Space Telescope view of Titan with the surface revealed via methane-subtracting filters over several days. Image Credit: NASA/HST

The high sensitivity and spatial resolution of STIS enabled astronomers to search for massive black holes and study star formation, planets, nebulae, galaxies, and other objects in fine detail.

STIS was developed jointly with Ball Aerospace under the direction of principal investigator Dr. Bruce E. Woodgate of the Laboratory for Astronomy and Solar Physics at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Among the major scientific achievements made by scientists using STIS were:

  • Independent confirmation of the age of the universe by finding the coolest and hence oldest white dwarf stars that exist in our galaxy
  • Conducted an efficient census of galaxies to catalog supermassive black holes. The fraction of galaxies that prove to contain a central massive black hole has proven to be surprisingly large
  • Made the first-ever measurements of the chemical composition of the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet
  • Saw the magnetic "footprints" of the Jovian satellites in Jupiter aurora, and made clear images of Saturn’s aurora
  • Studied the dynamics of circumstellar disks, the region around young stars where planets may form
  • Found the first evidence of the high-speed collision of gas in the recent supernova remnant SN1987A

Additional information about STIS is available.

Timelines

1990
- Hubble Space Telescope launches aboard Space Shuttle Discovery, as Earth Orbiting Observatory

1994
- Hubble Space Telescope finds evidence of black hole in the center of M87
– Hubble Key Project begins studying Cepheid variable stars to better define Hubble Constant, and the size of the universe

The TPF
The Terestrial Planet Finder will search for Earth-like planets orbiting 250 of the closest stars.
Credit: NASA

1996
- Sidney van den Bergh and Gustav Tammann debate Hubble Constant and the scale of the universe

1998
- Jim Peebles and Michael Turner debate nature of universe and whether cosmology is solved

1999
- John Cowan confirms age estimates of globular clusters and universe by dating metal-poor stars
– Wendy Freedman and Allan Sandage debate Hubble Constant and the scale of universe

2001
- Hubble Space Telescope detects an atmosphere around an extrasolar planet

2002
- Chandra X-ray Observatory finds evidence for new matter in "quark stars", matter so dense it exceeds terrestrial nuclear material with 1.2 million degree temperatures

2003
- Final mission in NASA Great Observatory series, the infrared observatory, or Spitzer Space Telescope, finds evidence for organic molecules in intergalactic regions
Microwave measurements precisely date the Big Bang at 13.7 billion years ago, with a remarkable 1% error prediction

2006
- French COROT mission will look at 50,000 to 60,000 stars and should find a few dozen terrestrial planets and several hundred close-in gas-giant planets during a two- to three-year mission

2007
- Kepler, Extrasolar Terrestrial Planet Detection Mission, designed to look for transiting or earth-size planets that eclipse their parent stars [survey 100,000 stars]. Scientists expect to find thousands of planets, and perhaps 50 Earth-like candidates.
- Likely de-orbit for Hubble Space Telescope [date announced is highly fluid but assumes no planned shuttle visits from NASA]

2009
- Planned launch for NASA-ESA Next Generation Space Telescope, or NGST [James Webb Space Telescope], a near-infrared telescope that will succeed the Hubble Space Telescope.
– Planned launch for Space Interferometery Mission (SIM)

2012-2015
- Planned launch for TPF and Darwin missions


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