The Hubble Space Telescope is working again, taking stunning cosmic photos after a breakdown a month ago. But the good news was quickly tempered by NASA’s announcement Thursday that a mission to upgrade the popular telescope will be delayed at least until May.
A key replacement part that is essential because of the telescope’s failure in September won’t be ready for at least six months.
It was the latest twist in the long-running drama surrounding the 18-year-old space telescope — one that initially took only fuzzy photos, then when fixed, provided dazzling and scientifically significant pictures of space, including a new one NASA showed Thursday.
A repair and upgrade mission to the telescope was nixed a couple of years ago as too risky for the astronauts. But enthusiasm and improved safety measures convinced NASA’s current chief, Michael Griffin, to go forward with it.
That flight was supposed to happen in mid-October. But the science computer on the telescope unexpectedly shut down, so everything was put on hold. NASA was finally able to get a backup computer system to work in recent days.
But officials can’t count on that backup working indefinitely, so they want astronauts to install an additional system part. That part, in storage since 1991, revealed a “significant” problem during testing, said Hubble program manager Preston Burch. It won’t be ready to fly for at least six months, he said.
“I don’t see this as a huge insurmountable deal,” he added.
If engineers don’t get the spare box working properly, NASA will have to face a decision on whether to do the upgrade mission at all, said Jon Morse, NASA’s astrophysics chief. That is because of the potential futility of upgrading an observatory that could fail at any moment.
That’s not an issue right now, said NASA spokesman Ed Campion: “We’re a long way from declaring anything absolutely failed.”
The delay also may hinder another bigger NASA program, its new moon rocket that NASA hopes to launch by 2015. The space agency needs to spend several years reconfiguring a Kennedy Space Center launch pad for the new moon rocket testing. But that’s the pad the Hubble repair mission will launch from.
For the time being, the $10 billion telescope is as good as it was before it shut down a few weeks ago, according to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
To prove it, NASA released a glimmering new Hubble photo showing two ring-shaped galaxies after they collided. The two galaxies, known as Arp 147, are 440 million light-years from Earth and are bent into strange shapes due to the gravitational interaction between them.
As seen from Earth, one edge-on galaxy looks a bit like the number "1," while the other looks like a glowing zero — leading the Space Telescope Science Institute to hail the image as a "perfect 10."
Endeavour cleared for Nov. 14 liftoff
NASA reported good news on another front on Thursday: After a flight readiness review, managers gave the all-clear for the shuttle Endeavour to lift off from Kennedy Space Center at 7:55 p.m. ET Nov. 14, on a mission to the international space station.
One of the primary tasks for Endeavour's 15-day flight is to clean and repair worn joints on the station's solar arrays. The shuttle will carry about 16 tons of supplies to orbit, including equipment required to double the outpost's capacity from three to six crew members next year. The cargo includes additional sleeping quarters, a second toilet, an extra kitchen console and a new exercise device.
The flight, commanded by astronaut Chris Ferguson, also will bring up Sandra Magnus as a replacement for space station crew member Greg Chamitoff, who has been aboard the station since June.
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s space operations chief, said the only difference of opinion voiced during Thursday's flight readiness review involved pump inspections in the shuttle main engines. This new inspection will be conducted in the future before the engines are installed, but there’s no urgency for doing it before Endeavour’s upcoming flight, he said.
Gerstenmaier said the Hubble repair mission could be inserted anywhere in the space shuttle flight lineup, and that it would have little if any impact on space station operations. Ten shuttle missions remain until the entire fleet is retired in 2010 to make way for a new rocket ship.
This report was supplemented by msnbc.com.