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If the past is a guide, Hubble's new trouble won't doom the space telescope

Without space shuttle missions, the trick this time is to find a work-around from the ground

A SPACE TELESCOPE IS BORN From the start, the Hubble Space Telescope (seen being released from the cargo bay of the space shuttle Discovery on April 25, 1990) has survived many potentially career-ending scares.


Hubble's in trouble again. The 28-year-old space telescope, in orbit around the Earth, put itself to sleep on October 5 because of an undiagnosed problem with one of its steering wheels. But once more, astronomers are optimistic about Hubble's chances of recovery. After all, it's just the latest nail-biting moment in the history of a telescope that has defied all life-expectancy predictions. There is one major difference this time. Hubble was designed to be repaired by astronauts on the space shuttle. Each time the telescope broke previously, a shuttle mission fixed it. "That we can't do anymore, because there ain't no shuttle," says astronomer Helmut Jenkner of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who is Hubble's deputy mission head. The most recent problem started when one of the three gyroscopes that control where the telescope points failed. That wasn't surprising, says Hubble senior project scientist Jennifer Wiseman of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. That particular gyroscope had been glitching for about a year. But when the team turned on a backup gyroscope, it didn't function properly either.

Astronomers are working to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it from the ground. The mood is upbeat, Wiseman says. But even if the gyroscope doesn't come back online, there are ways to point Hubble and continue observing with as few as one gyroscope. "This is not a catastrophic failure, but it is a sign of mortality," says astronomer Robert Kirshner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. Like cataracts, he says, it's "a sign of aging, but there's a very good remedy." While we wait for news of how Hubble is faring, here's a look back at some of its previous hiccups and repair missions.

On June 27, 1990, three months after the space telescope launched, astronomers discovered an aberration in Hubble's primary mirror. Its curvature was off by two micrometers, making the images slightly blurry. The telescope soldiered on, despite being the butt of jokes on late-night TV. It observed a supernova that exploded in 1987 (SN: 2/18/17, p. 20), measured the distance to a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way and took its first look at Jupiter before the space shuttle Endeavour arrived to fix the mirror in December 1993.

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