The fifth and final service mission to the Hubble Space Telescope is to be postponed until January as a mystery malfunction on Saturday crippled the observatory’s ability to transmit data to Earth. The STS-125 mission was set to launch in two weeks so essential upgrades to Hubble could be carried out, but Space Shuttle Atlantis will have to be stood down from her Cape Canaveral launch pad until NASA engineers can get to the root of the malfunction…
STS-125 had already been delayed by a few days due to Hurricane Ike, but now it would seem Hubble itself has ensured the seven-member service crew will have to ride out a delay of a few months. Atlantis and Endeavour are currently primed and ready to launch, but all the preparations for the service mission and back-up rescue mission appear to have been in vain (Endeavour would assume the role of STS-400, should the crew of Atlantis need help).
On Saturday, Hubble suffered a “significant” malfunction, impacting the storage and transmission of science data to Earth. Naturally, ahead of STS-125, NASA will need to investigate the problem before deciding whether it is worth launching astronauts on this potentially risky mission. The Atlantis crew have been training for this tough assignment for many months, consisting of five back-to-back space walks (EVAs) to install new instrumentation, repair old instrumentation and give the whole observatory a overhaul (replacing six gyroscopes, six batteries, sensor and insulation).
Alas, much to their frustration, the Atlantis crew will be grounded for a little longer.
NASA will have to track down the malfunction, possibly leading to the decision to send a replacement system into orbit with STS-125. However, any back-up systems will need to be tested at Goddard Spaceflight Center first, delaying its delivery to Kennedy Space Center until the first week of January.
So what has gone wrong on the Space Telescope? Saturday evening, Hubble’s Control Unit/Science Data Formatter (“Side A”) issued commands to switch the science instruments and computers into safe mode when errors were detected in the Data Formatter. Scientists attempted to reset the formatter and dump the computer memory, but they were unsuccessful. Now Side A no longer allows the transfer of science data to mission control. The transfer of operations to the redundant “Side B” could restore functionality to the science instruments, but this will be very complex. Many of the modules in the redundant systems have not been tested since ground tests prior to Hubble launch in the early 1990s, but NASA appears confident that these backup systems should restore science operations in time.
As for the STS-125 service mission? It will be put on hold until replacement parts are delivered in 2009… how frustrating.