The Hubble Space Telescope has entered into a protective safe mode, in what is now an upsettingly regular occurrence. Mission team members have yet to identify the source of the latest issue.
The problem began during the early hours of October 23, when error codes produced by Hubble’s science instruments pointed to the “loss of a specific synchronization message,” according to a NASA press release. These messages enable the instruments to accurately respond to data requests and commands. Mission team members performed the required reset, allowing operations to resume the following morning.
But at 2:38 a.m. EDT on October 25, the same thing happened again, but this time the science instruments churned out a batch of loss of synch messages. Hubble automatically went into safe mode as a result, and it’s been in this state ever since. Science operations are currently on hold, but the NASA team insists that Hubble’s instruments are “healthy” and that the space telescope will stay in safe mode for the duration of the investigation.
Launched in 1990, the storied telescope has provided spectacular views of the cosmos and invaluable astronomical data. Hubble, a joint mission of NASA and the European Space Agency, was only supposed to last 15 years, but it just keeps on ticking, despite the occasional glitch. Current indications suggest Hubble will remain operational into the late 2020s and possibly even into the 2030s.
Mission specialists are trying to get a handle on the current situation—an apparent synchronization issue—by analyzing spacecraft data and system diagrams. They’re also working to develop new ways of collecting data from Hubble, a process that’s expected to take at least a week. No timetable has been set for Hubble to return to its regularly scheduled programming. We reached out to NASA for more details, but no new information was provided.
This latest incident marks the third time that Hubble has entered into safe mode in 2021, and we can only hope that, like all previous times this has happened, the spacecraft will wake from its slumber. The situation looked dodgy on June 13 of this year, when Hubble entered into safe mode due to a failed Power Control Unit. It took NASA a full month to bring Hubble back, which it finally managed to do by switching to backup hardware. Hubble also entered into safe mode this past March on account of a software glitch, as well as in 2008, 2018, and 2019.
Hubble is awesome, and we hope to see it back as soon as possible, but its successor, the Webb space telescope, is waiting in the wings. Launch of the next-gen space telescope is currently scheduled for December 18, 2021 at 7:20 a.m. EDT.